Cold-Water Drowning


On November 26, two lives were lost at Lake of the Ozarks.  Both were visitors, both drowned. The report indicated that one swimmer began to struggle and went under and did not resurface.  His friend dove into the water to his friend and he also did not resurface.    Neither individual was wearing a life jacket.

This is a grim reminder, that water activities when the water temperature is low will greatly decrease the chances of survival.  Typically, people in temperate climates don't consider themselves at risk from hypothermia in the water, but hypothermia can occur in any water temperature below 70°F.

It was noted on the day of the drowning the water temperature was 54 degrees F. To some 54 degrees F may seem warm.  However, at this temperature your body will succumb to hypothermia, death will follow if rescue does not come quickly.

At a water temperature of 32.5 to 40 degrees, death may occur in 30 - 90 minutes. At a water temperature of 40 to 50 degrees, death may occur in 1 - 3 hours. At a water temperature of 50 - 60 degrees, death may occur in 1 - 6 hours.  Trying to swim makes you lose heat faster as well.  Your body will exert more energy and heat in the attempt to keep vital organs functioning.

The 4 Phases of Cold-Water Drowning

1.             1.  Cold Shock Response: This response affects breathing and happens within the first minute. An         automatic gasp reflex occurs in response to rapid skin cooling. If the head goes below water, water         may be breathed into the lungs, resulting in drowning. A life jacket will help keep your head above         water during this critical phase. Additionally, hyperventilation, like the gasp reflex, is a response to         the cold and will subside. Panic will make this worse, so the key is to control breathing.

     The first and most critical stage of cold-water immersion is the cold-water gasp reflex. When thrust     into cold water, a human will gasp uncontrollably in an involuntary physiological response. (Most of     us have had this happen, such as when stepping into a cold shower or jumping into cold water.) This     condition is extremely hazardous and is a major contributor of drownings in cooler water. A victim         begins to hyperventilate, which increases panic and compounds their inability to breathe.”


2. Cold Incapacitation: This response occurs within the first five to 15 minutes in cold water. In order to preserve core heat, vasoconstriction takes place decreasing blood flow to the extremities to protect the vital organs. The result is a loss of movement to hands, feet, arms and legs. Unless a life jacket is being worn, the ability to stay afloat is next to impossible.

     3. Hypothermia: Important to note, it can take 30 minutes or more for most adults to become                 hypothermic. So there’s time to take action and survive. Keeping panic at bay is critical, as you have      more survival time than you think. Symptoms include:

·         Shivering

·         Slow and shallow breathing

·         Confusion

·         Drowsiness or exhaustion

·         Slurred speech

·         Loss of coordination

·         Weak pulse

4. Circum-rescue Collapse: This experience can happen just before rescue and is not well understood. Symptoms range anywhere from fainting to death. Some experts believe an abrupt drop in blood pressure may cause this final stage of cold-water drowning, post-rescue.

If you are boating, working on your dock, fishing, and water related activity please do the following from National Safe Boating Council

Here are some tips to keep in mind before you head out on the cold water.

• Do make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket. Even experienced swimmers can experience shock within one minute in the frigid water and may lose muscle control within 10 minutes.

• Do file a float plan with someone you trust that includes details about the trip, boat, passengers, towing or trailer vehicle, communication equipment, and emergency contacts. Download a free float plan template at

• Do dress properly for the weather, always wearing layers, and bring an extra set of clothes in case you get wet. Remember, dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.

• Do catch your breath. A sudden unexpected fall into cold water causes an involuntary gasp (or torso) reflex. It takes less than ½ cup of water in your lungs to drown. If you remain calm, you have a greater chance of self-rescue.

• Do look for ways to increase your buoyancy. If you’re alone, utilize the H.E.L.P. (Heat Escape Lessening Position) and if you’re in the water with others, huddle together with everyone facing inwards to help everyone stay afloat and keep warm.

• Don’t panic if you fall into the water. Stay afloat with the help of your life jacket, regain control of your breathing, and keep your head above water in vision of rescuers. Stay with the boat if possible.

• Don’t apply heat to extremities like arms and legs of a rescued victim. This sudden change in temperature may cause cardiac arrest.

Recreational water activities during the winter and early spring are a lot of fun, but always remember safety first.



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