With winter arriving, outdoor enthusiasts may be tempted to turn their hands to a little cold water swimming. This may be great exercise, but it’s also extremely dangerous. The human body is not designed to be submerged in cold water.
This risk is not just restricted to winter, either. The body can experience “cold shock” – a term initially devised by Mike Tipton and Frank Golden in the 1980s – in all weathers.
Cold shock is a catch-all term that covers the response to finding yourself in cold water, whether by accident or design. The condition is often fatal, but until recently, the reason for this was misunderstood.
Why is cold water deadly?
Popular opinion has always dictated that hypothermia – an extreme drop of body temperature – kills those submerged in cold water. This theory gained credence after the Titanic sank back in 1912. Over 1,500 people lost their lives when the famously unsinkable ocean liner struck an iceberg, leaving the passengers stranded at sea.
In reality, hypothermia takes around thirty minutes to really take hold. Cold shock can have an immediate impact. This means that, by acting appropriately when submerged in cold water, it’s still possible to save your own life.
This takes a great deal of effort and training. When the human body experiences the temperatures associated with cold water, the instinct is to gasp and start to hyperventilate. This means that you’ll have no control over your breathing.
This panic is unhelpful for two key reasons. Firstly, cold water already places the human heart under a massive amount of pressure. Your heart will struggle to maintain a regular rhythm. Coupled with the fearful signals being fired by your brain, you are at serious risk of cardiac arrest.
Also, gasping for air naturally means that your mouth will be wide open. The lungs will drown if they consume around 1.5 liters of water. This becomes considerably more likely if you are gasping, thrashing, and desperately attempting to suck in lungfuls of air from the surface of the water.
So, all you need to do to avoid cold shock is to stay calm when submerged in cool water? Well, that’s easier said than done. If you undertook the fabled ice bucket challenge in the name of ALS, you’ll remember the involuntary reaction the cold water caused in your body. What’s more, you have less than thirty minutes to get out of the water, dried off, and warmed up before hypothermia becomes a genuine possibility.
How to survive submersion in cold water
The fact is, most people that die from cold shock had no intention of submerging themselves in water. Unless you’re an advocate of the Wim Hof method, which revolves around training the body in sub-zero temperatures, you’ll likely have no plans to get so dangerously cold.
All the same, if your lifestyle dictates that exposure to cold water is possible, it pays to prepare yourself and learn survival techniques. This applies to anybody that lives close to a river or lake, and especially to sailing enthusiasts.
Appropriate attire can also be a lifesaver. If you know that you will be around cold water, don a wetsuit or drysuit. This will minimize the skin area that encounters the water upon impact. This, in turn, slows down the spread of cold shock and hypothermia. You’ll have considerably more time to resolve the issue, increasing your chances of surviving the experience.
Training techniques for cold-water survival
To build a tolerance to cold water, make friends with ice water baths. Take half a dozen three-minute showers throughout a day – drying yourself off and getting warm again between each bath.
By exposing your body to cold water in short, controlled bursts, you’re less likely to go into shock if it happens unexpectedly. This, in turn, means that you’re less likely to panic, gasp and hyperventilate upon exposure to cold water. Your lungs will not fill with fluid, and you will be able to hold your breath until regular breathing is possible.
It’s equally important that you do not immediately attempt to thrash and swim your way to safety if submerged in cold water. The instinct to do so is classic fight-or-flight stuff. The panic will hijack your amygdala and convince you to swim for your life. You’ll likely swim faster than you ever have before.
Resist this urge. Instead, concentrate on remaining still and floating on the surface of the water. Yes, you can float – just make a minor sculling motion beneath the water’s surface. Within around a minute, your breathing should return to normal.
At this point, you should continue to float – or better yet, grab onto something, like a buoy. From here, await help or rescue. Once this arrives, take every step to increase your body temperature once you reach the surface. The risk of hypothermia remains prevalent.
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