Cold Water Increases Drowning Risk

Cold Water Increases Drowning Risk

May 15, 2009

People Going to Rivers and Lakes Need to Use Caution

The Spokane Regional Health District is urging area residents to use simple, proven methods to decrease their chances of injury or drowning.  Area rivers and lakes can be cold and deceptively fast moving. Water conditions and water temperatures can get even the best swimmers into serious trouble.

"Cold water adds to the dangerous conditions we are seeing in our area lakes and rivers," said Dr. Joel McCullough, Health Officer for the Spokane Regional Health District, "Even when the weather is warm, the water can be very, very cold."

For boaters, rafters and kayakers, a sudden unexpected wake or other "unbalancing event" can send them into frigid water. Although the possibility of drowning from falling into the water is a real threat, so too is hypothermia. Hypothermia is a condition that exists when the body's temperature drops below ninety-five degrees. This can happen quickly in cold water.

The loss of body heat results in loss of dexterity, loss of consciousness, and eventually loss of life. A few minutes in cold water makes it very difficult to swim, even to keep yourself afloat. In addition, a sudden, unexpected entry into cold water may cause a reflexive "gasp" allowing water to enter the lungs. Drowning can be almost instantaneous.

Your body can cool down 25 times faster in cold water than in air, and survival time can be as short as 15 minutes. Water temperature, body size, amount of body fat, and movement in the water all play a part in cold water survival. Small people cool faster than large people and children cool faster than adults.

Personal floatation devices (PFDs) can help you stay alive longer in cold water. You can float without using energy and they cover part of your body thereby providing some protection from the cold water. When boating in cold water you should consider using a flotation coat or deck-suit style PFD. They cover more of your body and provide even more protection.  The best PFD is the one you will wear.

People of all ages recreating the Spokane River are required to wear a life jacket between the Centennial Trail foot bridge and the Idaho state line. On other bodies of water in Spokane County, all children age 12 and under must be wearing a life jacket on all moving vessels, according to County ordinance.

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More information on drowning prevention

The Spokane Regional Health District has been promoting and protecting the health of the citizens of Spokane for 37 years. Public health succeeds by identifying and addressing patterns of disease, illness, and injury in populations. Through the use of population-based strategies for disease and injury prevention, public health has contributed to the decline in illness and injury, including heart disease and stroke, tobacco-related diseases, infectious diseases and motor vehicle and workplace injuries.