By Sarah Hippensteel Hall, Ph.D., manager of watershed partnerships
Many people think about the dangers of cold-water immersion when the temperatures begin to turn cooler in the fall. But springtime can create a false sense of security because while the air may be warm, the water may not be. And if you capsize, the “cold shock” can lead to drowning.
Falling into cold water can cause your body to react in a few ways:
Gasping for breath and rapid breathing. Oftentimes when someone falls in a river or lake, the cold water can cause an involuntary gasping reflex, leading to a drowning emergency. It can also create rapid breathing and hyperventilation.
Heart and blood pressure problems. Cold water can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to spike, increasing the chance for heart failure or stroke in some people.
Cognitive impairment. The shock of the cold water can create panic for some. The fear and stress can keep you from thinking clearly and making good decisions. The longer you’re in the water, the greater the chance of hypothermia, which can further reduce your decision-making abilities.
Keep in mind that the water doesn’t have to be super cold to trigger cold shock. Gasping for a breath or rapid breathing from sudden immersion can be triggered by water as warm at 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
Follow these other safety tips to protect yourself when paddling.
- Always wear your life jacket.
- Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperatures.
- Wear a wet suit or dry suit if the air temperature is at or below 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Always file a float plan with someone you trust.
Once you’ve been immersed in cold water for several minutes, you may have a loss of muscular control in your arms, hands, legs and feet. Losing the ability to use your hands and feet make self-rescue more challenging. Loss of muscular control could make it more difficult to keep your head above water. If you’re not wearing a life jacket, your chance of survival becomes minimal.
Beyond the initial cold shock, after the first one to three minutes of immersion, a person’s body temperature will continue to drop. Hypothermia begins to set in at a body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit, increasing the risk of drowning. Your body temperature can continue to drop even after you’re out of the water, so be sure to find a warm, dry place.
Want to give yourself a fighting chance in a cold-water immersion or any other emergency situation on the water? Wear your life jacket! It significantly increases your chances of survival.
Review our river maps and more safety tips.