for those who love the outdoors

13 July, 2022

The dangers of cold water shock

You can experience cold water shock even on the hottest of days - read on for best advice on how to spot the signs of and reduce the risk of cold water shock.

Cold water shock

Throughout the UK, the weather is pretty hot at the moment. From blazing hot sunshine to muggy afternoons, it's also meant that the general water temperatures around the UK have increased in the last few weeks too.

Cold water shock - the sun is shining

Throughout the UK, the weather is pretty hot at the moment. From blazing hot sunshine to muggy afternoons, it's also meant that the general water temperatures around the UK have increased in the last few weeks too.

There is nothing more refreshing than a cool swim on a warm day. But there are dangers of going from extreme heat to extreme cold, and those dangers are often underestimated.

What is cold water shock?

Cold water shock is the body's initial reaction to cold water immersion. It normally occurs within the first minute of exposure and can lead to an increased heart rate, loss of breathing control and muscle coordination, and can even cause cardiac arrest. You know that "gasp" you take when you walk into a cold shower? That's the beginning of cold water shock.

Typically, the water temperature needs to be below 18-21 Celsius for you to potentially experience cold water shock. Bear in mind that the average sea temperature around the UK in summer is somewhere between 15-20 degrees Celsius, so it is something you should be cautious of, even on the hottest of days.

The dangers of cold water shock are that it can make you unable to breathe if you suddenly enter cold water, either deliberately or from falling in. You might be paddleboarding or kayaking and fall in unexpectedly, or going for a dip in a cool river. You can still get cold water shock in a wetsuit too!

Signs of Cold Water Shock

The main danger of cold water shock is that it can lead to drowning or cardiac arrest. In cold water, your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, and this can lead to hypothermia.

If you do go into quite cold water, or if it is your first time, the first thing you will feel is the cold shock response – the initial gasp, rapid breathing, panic, vertigo and increased heart rate and blood pressure. All of which can result in water inhalation.

If you are swimming in cold water and experience cold water shock, you may:

  • gasp for air involuntarily
  • start to hyperventilate or take quick, shallow breaths
  • feel an increased heart rate
  • feel dizzy or disorientated
  • feel muscle cramps
  • have difficulty using your limbs
Cold water shock child

How to Avoid Cold Water Shock

If you are going to be swimming in cold water, there are a few things you can do to avoid cold water shock:

  • swim with a friend or group so that someone can raise the alarm if you get into trouble
  • wear a wetsuit or other thermal protection to help keep your body warm
  • take extra care if you are swimming in cold water after exercising, as you will be more susceptible to cold water shock
  • avoid sudden immersion in cold water – ease yourself in gradually so that your body can acclimatise If you do find yourself in cold water, the best thing to do is to try and keep calm. Float on your back with your legs together and toes pointing downwards to help preserve body heat. If you can, raise one hand above the water to signal for help.

What to do after your cold water dip

When you get out of the water, these things will help you to get warm quickly:

  • Get out of your wet clothes as soon as possible and get dry
  • Put on dry warm clothes, including hat gloves and thick socks (weather dependant of course). A changing robe may help with getting changed and drying you at the same time and can keep off windchill.
  • Have a hot drink and maybe a snack or two to hand. Who doesn't like a coffee and catch up with pals after a cold water swim?
  • Keep yourself and others safe by waiting until you have warmed up before driving.
Open water swimming

Respect the Water - Float to Live

Should you get into trouble, the RNLI Respect The Water Campaign urges people to avoid gasping, thrashing or swimming hard and to remain as calm as possible, turn onto their back and float instead.

If you get into trouble in the in the water, Float to Live.

Lean back and use your arms and legs to help you float, then get control of your breathing before calling for help or swimming to safety.

Who to call in an emergency

If you see someone else in trouble in the water, call 999 or 112.

If you are the coast ask for the coastguard

If you are inland waters, ask for the fire service.

You could read these cold water swimming tips from Kari-anne Payne here.

Author Bio

Regular contributor Natasha Sones helped to create these life saving tips for when you're entering cold water.

Natasha has an outside adventure travel blog: www.natashasoneseditorial.com/blog. With three children, three dogs and a husband she enjoys days out, travelling, walking, paddleboarding, camping, stargazing and much more! Follow her blog or her Instagram account: @natashastarseeker if you love adventure lifestyle articles. You can see more of Nataha's blogs here.