Cold water shock is the body’s first response after a sudden or unexpected immersion in water, resulting in loss of consciousness and other symptoms.
Preventing complications from cold water exposure will require adequate preparation and knowledge of first aid treatment.
What is Cold Water Shock
Cold water shock is the first stage after sudden, unexpected exposure to water with a temperature of 15 °C or lower.
The condition occurs within the first minutes of the exposure and is likely to cause more deaths than hypothermia.
Australia’s substantially cold waters in the winter season are especially dangerous when there is an unexpected fall. Studies show that up to 60% of fatalities occur in the first few minutes of exposure and drain body heat four times faster than col care.
As the body hits cold water, it will go through dramatic changes in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. All these can also result in muscle spasms and hyperventilation, leading to loss of consciousness.
Cold water shock can also cause an involuntary gasp reflex that can cause the victim to swallow water and potentially drown, even for confident swimmers.
The cold water can also paralyze the muscles instantly, which increases the danger of drowning in open water.
Swimming and activities in cold water without appropriate equipment and safety practices can be fatal.
Stages of Cold Water Shock
The 1:10:1 principle best describes the three phases of the cold-water effect on the body.
One minute (cold shock response)
Immersion in cold water can trigger an immediate cold shock response, including an involuntary gasp, increased heart rate, and a spike in blood pressure.
Ten minutes (cold incapacitation)
The cold water starts numbing the extremities and can cause weakness in balance and coordination. It will make it difficult for the victim to swim, wave, or flow over the water.
One hour (hypothermia)
Hypothermia is a state where the body’s temperature drops below 35°C after over one hour of water exposure. It is a dangerously low body temperature which can be fatal without quick response and first aid temperature.
In general, the water temperature is considered ‘cold’ when lower than 15°C, but it might change depending on specific circumstances.
The survival time will usually depend on the victim’s physical health, clothing protection, access to floatation aids, and quick first aid treatment.
How to Deal with Cold Water Shock
If there is an unexpected immersion in water, try to conserve energy and body heat as much as possible. Swim in open water using a buddy system and ask others to join as you explore deeper parts.
Knowing how much time there is to survive in cold water can be challenging, but here are some tips to increase your chances.
- Keep the mouth away from water until breathing is controlled. Do this by rolling onto your back and using a floatation device or paddling to stay at the surface.
- Swim towards the nearby exit before the muscles start to cool. Try to reach for something that will help keep the body afloat while calling for help.
- Once you are out of the water, rewarm the body by drying off and using blankets to avoid hypothermia.
Being prepared can save lives in the event of sudden cold water immersion. The ability to survive will depend on your ability to stay afloat and stay warm until medical help arrives.
Below are some tips to consider before spending some time in open water.
- Wear a life jacket and other floating devices in and around the water.
- When dressing up, consider the water temperature, not for air temperature.
- Do the initial test by splashing some cold water into the face before jumping into the water. Doing so will help the body get used to the lower temperature and let the shock pass.
If you or someone else has been accidentally submerged in cold water, get out of the water and move to a warm place. Monitor for breathing and circulation. If the person is not breathing and is having possible shock, perform CPR and rescue breathing.
Call triple zero (000) for further medical assistance.
Learn First Aid
Knowledge is power. The more you understand, the more you can prepare and minimize the risk in and around open water.
Learn first aid to recognize warning signs of cold water shock and in-depth knowledge of CPR and life-saving techniques.