Cold water shock: what is it, and how can I prevent it?

Cold water shock: what is it, and how can I prevent it?

What do you know about cold water shock? Likelihood is very little, or maybe you just think about losing your breath when you are suddenly faced with a bucket of ice water. But the consequences of cold water shock can be deadly. It’s really important you know a little about cold water shock and exposure if you’re paddling. Not just to protect yourself, but to be able to spot signs in your paddling friends and keep you all safe on the water.

And, if you’re reading this in summer, don’t think it won’t affect you! DID YOU KNOW… the average UK and Ireland sea temperatures are just 12°C. With rivers such as the Thames being even colder – even in the summer. Cold water shock happens in any water under 15°C, so there’s still a high chance in summer it could happen without you even realising. So please, familiarise yourself with the below advice, share away, and go on your paddling adventures prepared.

What is cold water shock?

Cold water shock happens when you’re immersed in water under 15°C and the body reacts. Often you will experience a shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, as well as restricted movement in your body.

Let’s get into the science a little more. What happens?

When you’re immersed in cold water, the blood vessels in the skin restrict (get narrower) which makes it harder for blood to flow around the body. This in turn increases blood pressure, as the heart pushes harder to try and get that blood around the body to keep you warm and your organs functioning. For this reason, cold water shock can cause heart attacks, even in young people with no underlying health conditions. We’re not trying to scare you here! There are simple things to prevent this happening, more on this further down.

But what else? Your breathing can also start to change quite rapidly. With everything happening in the body at such a quick pace, a feeling of panic can sometimes come over you. The more you gasp for air and splash around, the more likely you are to inhale water. The involuntary gasping, reduced ability to control your breathing, and induced vertigo as water enters the ears, means once you go under the water, it’s difficult to get back to the top.

The main thing here is how quickly this can happen. It only takes half a pint of water to enter the lungs for an adult to start drowning.

Did you know… One of the biggest dangers is inhaling water and drowning, even if the water is flat, calm and you know how to swim.

When can you get cold water shock?

Anytime the water is below 15°C and you immerse yourself in it, you could be susceptible to cold water shock.

It’s also worth noting too, that just because the air temperature is warm, doesn’t mean the water temperature is. That’s what can make cold water immersion so dangerous. It could be a lovely sunny day, and you’re paddling in your top and shorts, but if you’re on a deep lake, sea or river, the water temperature if you fall in could well be below the 15°C. Make sure you’re dressed suitably incase you do take an unexpected dip!

But all is not lost… there’s some REALLY easy ways to stay safe!

So this is all really quite scary right? It doesn’t have to be! There are some REALLY simple, easy ways to prevent this happening so you can enjoy paddling all year round. This article absolutely shouldn’t be an excuse to not get on the water all year round. But it SHOULD be an excuse to understand the conditions you’re paddling in further. And go on your paddle trip prepared!

The first thing to think about if you do take an unexpected swim, is to stay calm. Stay calm, and get out of the water as quickly as you can. However, if something happens where that’s not possible, the RNLI recommend three simple steps if you enter the water unexpectedly:

  1. Take a minute. The initial effects of cold water pass in less than a minute so don’t try to swim straight away.
  2. Relax and float on your back to catch your breath. Try to get hold of something that will help you float.
  3. Keep calm then call for help or swim for safety if you’re able.

And you should always try and follow the advice when heading out on a trip too:

  1. Check conditions – including water temperature. Before heading to the coast visit for full surf reports in the UK and Ireland. You should also check conditions on inland waterways too. Click here for more information about reading the weather.
  2. Wear the correct clothing for the amount of time you plan to spend in the water and the type of activity you’re doing, if entering. You can find more information about winter paddling clothing specifically here. For summer paddling, click here.
  3. Wear a flotation device. Wear a PFD, and when on a paddle board the correct leash, greatly increases your chances of making it through the initial shock.

How can I spot cold water shock in myself?

If you enter the water unexpectedly, or you are in the water for an amount of time such as when performing rescues, be aware of:

  1. Your breath. Has it changed rapidly? Are you gasping for breath?
  2. Your heart rate. Is your heart racing or beating irregularly?
  3. Has your movement in the water started to become difficult or laboured?

Once out of the water, try to warm up. A warm drink, high energy foods, hot water bottle, change into dry clothes, move around… get the blood flowing through the body again to warm up.

How can I spot cold water shock in others?

Keep those pointers above in your head. If you’re out on a paddle with someone and you recognise, after they’ve been immersed in the water, that their breathing is becoming sporadic, or they’re struggling to move or talk, or have become confused, that’s a sign to get some help.

You might also notice that the person may be shivering, pale and cold to touch. This might indicate cold water shock and mean they’re struggling to warm up.

How can I prevent cold water shock?

Prevention is always better than the cure! And guess what, there’s some REALLY easy ways to prevent cold water shock!

  1. Wear the correct clothing for taking a dip.
  2. Take a spare pair of dry clothes and keep them in your dry bag.
  3. Pack a blanket in the car, and a hot water bottle with a flask too.
  4. Take warm drinks with you on your trip.
  5. Paddling in your ability, don’t use a cold day to test your paddling skills.

All really basic things to help minimise the risk.

What do I do if I suspect myself or a paddling pal is suffering from shock?

If the person is pale, shivering and is becoming confused, heat them up in the best way possible. Wrap them in a blanket and give them warm drinks and high-energy foods, such as chocolate, to give the body that hit of energy and kick the system into high gear. Then keep an eye on them, checking to see if they are improving.

If the shock is more serious or they are not improving, and the person is struggling to warm up or especially where the person is becoming confused, don’t hesitate to call 999.

Now you’re all prepared. Knowledge is power! The more you understand, the more you can be prepared and minimise the risk.