Cold water shock on the First Aid Show

Cold water, classified as temperatures below 15 degrees Celsius, is a common characteristic of the UK’s water bodies, including surrounding seas and rivers such as the Thames. With an average temperature of 12 degrees Celsius, these waters can incapacitate you within seconds.

Cold water can significantly impair your breathing and mobility, posing substantial risks throughout the year. Cold water shock results in the constriction of blood vessels in the skin, increasing blood flow resistance. This shock also elevates the heart rate, forcing the heart to work harder and raising blood pressure. Consequently, cold water shock can trigger heart attacks, even in relatively young and healthy individuals. Rapid skin cooling can also cause an involuntary gasp for air, leading to erratic breathing rates that may increase up to tenfold.

These reactions contribute to panic, increasing the likelihood of inhaling water directly into the lungs. A mere half pint of seawater entering the lungs can cause a fully-grown man to start drowning, with the risk of death without immediate medical attention.

To mitigate cold water shock risks, remain calm if you unexpectedly enter the water. As the initial effects of cold water subside within a minute, avoid swimming immediately. Instead, float on your back to catch your breath and try to hold onto a floating object. Keep calm, call for help, or swim to safety if possible.

When planning a swim, ensure you check water conditions before visiting the coast. Wear a wetsuit with an appropriate thickness based on the time you intend to spend in the water and the activity you’ll engage in. Additionally, wear a flotation device to significantly increase your chances of surviving the initial shock.

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