Be Prepared: Cold Water Can Kill
Cold water is extremely dangerous.
Cold water quickly robs the body of its strength, diminishes coordination and impairs judgment. Immersion in water as warm as 50-60 degrees can begin what is termed Cold Water Shock. When a paddler capsizes and is suddenly immersed in cold water, the first reflexive action of the boy is to gasp for air, this is followed by increased heart rate, blood pressure and disorientation and possibly cardiac arrest. Without proper equipment and apparel, the paddler’s body can become incapacitated in a very few minutes. Without a lifejacket, this can be a very dangerous and often fatal situation. If you’re paddling in water with a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, wearing a wetsuit is a neccesity, and a drysuit is highly recommended. It’s a good idea to follow this rule if the combined air and water temperatures are below 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cold water shock
- Initial cold shock (the first 3-5 minutes)
Short term swim failure (3-30 minutes)
Long term hypothermia (+ 30 minutes)
Post immersion collapse.
Cold-water shock symptoms
The reactions of the body may be muscle spasms and/or hyperventilation. Other symptoms include an increase of pulse and blood pressure. Sudden immersion into cold water can cause cardiac arrest. The shock of the cold water can also cause an involuntary gasp reflex that might cause victims to swallow water and drown. Cold water can paralyze the muscles instantly.
Cold water shock: Prevention and Survival
Wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). If you are wearing a PFD before falling into the cold water, it will keep you afloat while you gain control of your breathing and help prevent drowning from loss of muscle control. Trying to grab a lifejacket while in the water, let alone putting one on, will be extremely difficult because of the changes your body will be experiencing.
If you end up in the water, do everything you can to conserve energy and body heat. It’s difficult to know how long you can survive in cold water, but here are some tips to increase your survival time in cold water:
- Try not to panic, and try to control your breathing.
- Cold Water Survival Swim only if you can join others, safely get ashore or aboard a boat.
- Do not swim to keep warm.
- Climb onto any nearby floating object to get as much of your body out of, or above the water, as possible.
- If possible, adopt a heat escape lessening position (H.E.L.P.): cross your arms tightly against your chest and draw your knees up close to them;
- Huddle with others; make sure that everyone is close together, with arms around mid to lower back, and legs intertwined.
Another dangerous condition that can be caused by cold water or cold weather is hypothermia. Hypothermia literally means below temperature,and occurs when exposure to the elements prevents the body from reheating and maintaining its core temperature. The typical symptoms of hypothermia include: shivering, impaired judgment, clumsiness, loss of manual dexterity and slurred speech.
Plan your trip and think smart.
- Know the water temperature and weather forecast before you set out.
Fuel Your Body!
- Keep your body well fueled with high carbohydrate foods and lots of water.
Insulate your Body
- Avoid wearing cotton clothing when on the waterÂ in cool temperatures.
- Dress in layers using synthetic fabrics such as polyester fleece to prevent getting overheated or chilled from perspiration.
- Carry a waterproof jacket designed for splash and/or rain protection.
- Anytime the water temperature is less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit, wear specialized insulating clothing (wetsuit or drysuit) capable of protecting you while in the water.
- Keep in mind that the warmth and comfort range of a dry suit can varyÂ based on the clothing worn underneath it.
- Wear a warm hat that will stay on your head in the water. AÂ fleece-lined skullcap is best.
- Have spare, dry clothing stored in a sealed dry bag while on the water.
ObserveÂ your Group
- Know your own and your group’s emotional and physical limitations.
- Group members need to constantly assess the behavior of others in their group.
- Look for changes in behavior, withdrawal, sluggishness, talking less or a member not eating enough. These are all symptoms of fatigue and may suggest a problem that the group needs to address.
Assess The Situation
The typical symptoms of hypothermia (in the order of onset) are:
- Impaired judgment
- Loss of dexterity
- Slurred speech
- Inward behavior
- Shivering stops
- Muscle rigidity
Mild hypothermia (victim shivering but coherent):
If possible, take action before this stage. You may still have time to either stop the trip or take out early. Planning for an early take out and/or shuttle half way pays dividends. Move victim to place of warmth. Remove wet clothing; give warm, sweet drinks; no alcohol or caffeine. Keep victim warm for several hours. The window of opportunity is closing fast. By this time you are already well on your way to experiencing hypothermia.
Moderate hypothermia (shivering may decrease or stop):
The victim may seem irrational with deteriorating coordination. Treat the same as above but no drinks. Keep victim lying down with entire body (torso, thighs, head and neck) covered with dry clothes, coats or blankets to prevent additional heat loss. Seek medical attention immediately.
Severe hypothermia (shivering may have stopped):
The victim may resist help, be semiconscious or even unconscious. Removed from water, victim must be kept prone, on back and immobile. Victim must be handled gently. Cover torso, thighs, head and neck with dry covers to stop additional heat loss. Arms and legs must not be stimulated in any manner. Cold blood in extremities that suddenly returns to the core may induce cardiac arrest. Seek medical attention immediately.
Victim appears dead (little or no breathing, no pulse, body rigid):
Assume victim can still be revived. Look for faint pulse or breathing for 2 minutes. If any trace is found, do not give CPR. It can cause cardiac arrest. Medical help is imperative. If pulse and breathing are totally absent, trained medical personnell should start CPR.
The lake can offer lots of enjoyment in colder conditions, but make sure that you enjoy it safely. Don’t let your outing turn into a tragedy.
Plan, Fuel, Insulate, Observe… and have fun.