Emma Hammett A qualified nurse, author and first aid trainer with over 30 years’ healthcare and teaching experience On a hot day, plunging into a cool pool or the sea may well be a very appealing prospect. However, every year people die from a physiological reaction known as cold water shock. The Royal National Lifeboat
On a hot day, plunging into a
cool pool or the sea may well be a very appealing prospect. However, every year
people die from a physiological reaction known as cold water shock.
The Royal National Lifeboat
Institution campaigns to spread awareness of the dangers of cold water shock
and explain how people should react should they find themselves in difficulty.
Cold water shock occurs when
someone suddenly enters cold water – of their own volition, or by falling in and
the body involuntarily reacts to the shock of the cold water, causing panic and
resulting in them being unable to breathe.
However, the Royal National
Lifeboat Institution are highlighting the dangers of cold water shock that can
make you unable to breathe if you suddenly enter cold water, either
deliberately or from falling in. Their clear advice has already saved numerous
lives and it is a message they are keen for us all to share:
Because of the contrast in air and water temperature, many people who fall into the sea, canal or lake are at high risk of suffering cold water shock.
Cold water shock causes you
to gasp uncontrollably and panic, which often leads to drowning. The shock of entering the water triggers the
automatic flight and fright response resulting in panic and confusion, putting
additional strain on the heart, further lowering skin temperature by shutting
down the peripheral circulation. Thrashing around trying to swim will encourage
air to escape from clothing, thereby reducing buoyancy and making it harder to
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.
Floating offers an
opportunity to catch your breath; allowing the effects of cold water shock to
pass. This should take no more than about 90 seconds. Do not worry if you are wearing clothes and
shoes as these will remain buoyant and help you to float in the initial minute
it takes you to regain control of your breathing.
Once you have control of your
breath, you can swim to safety, call for help or continue to float until help
Understanding this approach
and floating rather than panicking will greatly increase your chances of
The key message is to roll
on your back, try not to panic and float, doing as little as possible until you can control your
The RNLI are urging people to
practise floating and share this important message as it has been proven to
Five steps to float:
your instinct to thrash around
- Lean back, extend your arms and legs
- If you need to, gently move them around to
help you float
- Float until you can control your breathing
- Only then, call for help or swim to safety
The RNLI also advises if you
see someone in difficulties in the water to fight the urge to go in and try and
rescue them. Instead call 999 and ask for the Coastguard. Or call 112.
It is worth remembering too,
that the sudden and extreme contrast between warm air and cold water, can lead
to cardiac arrest. Consequently, it is strongly advised not to jump or dive
straight into cold water on a hot day.