Cold water shock is a killer – Here’s how to avoid it

As the sun finally makes an appearance a lot of us will be taking full advantage and heading towards the coast. And as we all head to the beach to soak up the rays and cool down in the sea it’s worth keeping in mind that we still have to be smart around water. Cold water shock is one of those little known hazards that can really put you in danger and is definitely worth knowing more about.


Some things like big waves rocking in or a storm cloud bank forming on the horizon can be obvious indicators of tricky and changeable conditions. But others like cold water shock can be much less obvious but pose a very real danger. And cold water shock is one hazard many people just don’t know much about.

What is Cold water shock?

The textbook definition is ‘the sudden lowering of skin temperature on immersion in cold water’. Doesn’t sound too bad? That’s just jumping in the water, right? Well, if you’ve been soaking up the heat all day and your body isn’t use to cold water, aside from being struck by lightning, cold water shock is one of the biggest jolts your body can experience.

Here’s what’s happening to your body

First, closure of the blood vessels in the skin means increased resistance to blood flow. The heart then has to work much harder and your blood pressure increases. At the same time there is a “gasp” response which can result in water being breathed rather than air. At the same time, breathing rate increase dramatically. All these responses contribute to a feeling of panic. And panic in water is something that leads to seriously poor decisions.

This is what you want to avoid and sadly many people have lost their lives because of cold water shock.

A mother from Durham, England has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of cold water shock after her 14-year-old son died in the River Wear. Fiona Gosling says she wishes she had known more about the risks. In memory of Cameron she’s now working with the Safe Durham Partnership to persuade teenagers not to expose themselves to danger when playing near rivers and lakes.


Rogan Wheeldon, RNLI Community Incident Reduction Manager said: ‘Cold water is a real killer, people often don’t realise how cold our waters can be – even in summer months the temperature rarely exceeds 12 degrees, which is cold enough to trigger cold water shock. If you enter the water suddenly at that temperature, you’ll start gasping uncontrollably, which can draw water into your lungs and cause drowning. The coldness also numbs you, leaving you helpless – unable to swim or shout for help.’

‘The fact that over half of the people who die around our coast each year never planned to enter the water serves as a warning to us all to stay away from cliff edges, particularly where there is slippery, unstable, unstable or uneven ground; stick to marked paths and keep an eye on the water – watch out for unexpected waves which can catch you out and sweep you into the water.

How to avoid Cold Water Shock

  • Before jumping into water you should splash some cold water on your face. Just 10 – 15 seconds of this helps your body get use to the lower temperature and the shock passes.
  • Then you should start swimming straight away so your body completely adjusts to the lower temperature.

It’s worth noting this only works with your face and not any other part of your body. If you have no plans to be in the water and are going on a boat or some other water craft, always stick on a life jacket. For more information, check out the RNLI information page.

Whatever you do by the beautiful Irish coast, be smart and enjoy!

About the Author

Daniel Farrell
Interested in all things on the Irish coast and sharing the best of it. // Email: // Follow on Twitter: @DanielsSeaViews