Accidental cold water immersion (CWI) is one of the worst situations to encounter, especially when you aren’t prepared to deal with it. You need to realize that despite the common misunderstanding about CWI, it doesn’t directly cause the person to experience hypothermia.
In reality, a couple of serious events occur before hypothermia starts setting in. In total, there are four stages of cold water immersion, including:
- Cold shock response
- Cold incapacitation
- Circum-rescue (post-rescue) collapse
In this blog post, we’ll keep our focus on the four stages of cold water immersion to understand what happens when you find yourself submerged in frigid temperature water.
1- Cold Shock Response
The initial cold shock occurs in the first three to five minutes, causing the person to experience involuntary gasping, hyperventilation, and vertigo. All of these conditions are the result of water inhalation and drowning. Moreover, the cold shock leads to sudden heart rate and blood pressure fluctuations, transitioning towards the next CWI stage – cold incapacitation.
However, by controlling your breath and not making any overhasty movements in the water, you can minimize the shock to a significant extent.
2- Cold Incapacitation (Short-Term ‘Swim Failure’)
The second stage usually occurs within three to thirty minutes following the cold water immersion, based on the individual’s initial cold-shock response. Your handgrip strength, manual dexterity, and swimming speed decreases by sixty to eighty percent during this period, which is not enough to pull yourself out of the water or even keep your head above water under rash water conditions.
The long-term immersion hypothermia sets in after approximately thirty minutes of submersion in the cold water. However, the time factor also depends upon the exact water temperature, your clothing, and your behavior in the water.
In simple words, hypothermia is the resulting factor when your body starts to lose heat faster than producing it, cooling your organs and leading to unconsciousness or death – with or without drowning.
4- Circum-Rescue (Post-Rescue) Collapse
The fourth stage of cold water immersion happens before, during, or after the rescue. While you fight to stay alive in the cold water, the stress hormones surge through your body to help you survive. However, once the imminent threat minimizes, your mind relaxes, decreasing those hormones’ output. As a result, your blood pressure drops, and your muscles lose their functionality. It often leads to cardiac arrest while the person is still in the water.
Even when you’re out of the water, you can still be in danger of collapsing due to arterial blood pressure, leading to sudden cardiac arrest. Moreover, water inhalation can damage your lungs and cause problems to your heart as the cold blood from your arms and legs gets released into the body’s core.
Learning about the four stages of cold water immersion is the first step towards preparing yourself for the worst conditions. For more information regarding keeping yourself safe while indulging in various recreational water activities, you can visit our blog archives to surf through the informative content.