What You Need To Know About Cold Water Drowning

By: Tori Bowlin

May 14, 2024

Woman wakeboarding on Lake Tahoe

Northern Nevada's stunning lakes, including Lake Tahoe, with its average summer water temperature of 50 degrees, present a potential risk of hypothermia. Unlike mild 50-degree air, water at the same temperature poses severe, life-threatening risks, including rapid-onset hypothermia and drowning. Awareness of the symptoms and taking proper precautions are crucial to prevent cold-water drowning.

The 4 Phases of Cold-Water Drowning

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.

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.

Four phases of cold water drowning

Additional Safety Tips and Helpful Resources

  • Always wear a personal flotation device as well as a wetsuit or drysuit. Your personal flotation device is the most important piece of water safety gear.
  • Try not to panic as the first phases will subside. Controlled breathing is to staying calm. Research suggests the body can withstand the cold longer than we think.
  • The Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP) is a position which helps conserve energy if you’re wearing a personal flotation device. By hugging your knees to your chest, this posture helps maintain body heat for some time.


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