Chapter 4: Emergency Preparation

Cold Water Immersion

Cold water is especially dangerous because it sends the body into shock, gradually shutting it down. One loses energy quickly which makes drowning more likely.

The most common causes of cold water immersion are capsizing and falls overboard. While one wants to avoid these two hazards, in any situation, taking a plunge into cold water can be especially treacherous. Refer back to the subchapters on capsizing and falls overboard to review the preventative measures to avoid capsizing or falling overboard.

The risk of drowning is increased if one falls overboard or capsizes in cold water, so stay calm and apply some survival tips in order to maximize chances of escape or rescue. We'll go over these in a moment, but remember that the most important of these tips is this: Get out of the water, as quickly as possible, using any means.

Here is an analysis of the effect cold water immersion has on the body in order to highlight how dangerous it is.

When emerged in cold water, bodies go through different physiological responses. These responses are based on how long they were in contact with the cold water. The body will go through the following steps when immersed in cold water:

Cold Water Shock:

Cold Water Shock

When a person initially falls into cold water their body triggers a "gasp reflex." This will usually include hyperventilation and muscle spasms. Furthermore, as a result of involuntarily gasping for air, the person may also inhale water. This initial shock can also cause changes in heart rate or blood pressure. These initial changes typically last about two to three minutes. At this point, the body starts to experience more serious physiological changes.

Short-Term Immersion:

Short-Term Immersion

After a few short minutes, the body will begin to lose motor skills as one continues to be immersed. After the three-minute mark, one runs the risk of losing strength and feeling in their hands. This loss of strength will impair the ability to swim. Because of this loss of strength, boaters immersed in cold water often drown as result of being physically unable to tread water, even before hypothermia sets in.

Long-Term Immersion:

Long-Term Immersion

After thirty minutes or so, the body's core temperature will plummet below safe levels. This dangerous decrease, in body temperature, is called hypothermia. With continued immersion, the core temperature will keep dropping until it has reached the temperature of the water. During this continuous dropping of temperature, the person will become unconscious.

Even after the rescue, hypothermia still poses a serious threat. The drop in blood pressure can cause the afflicted person to become unconscious or stop breathing, even hours after being removed from the water. Because of this, anyone who is suffering from hypothermia should receive immediate and constant medical attention. Never immerse a hypothermia victim in warm water in an attempt to treat them, as this can cause shock or a heart arrhythmia. The best course of action is to gradually warm the person, starting at their center mass, while seeking proper medical treatment.

Remember, suffering from hypothermia requires immediate medical attention. The response to being immersed in cold water should be to seek medical attention.