Anyone living around the lake in the winter should know the importance of learning how to survive immersion in cold water.
During exercise and high temperatures, the body dissipates heat by sweat and evaporation. Similarly, when immersed in cold water, the body loses heat through the contact of water with the skin. As surrounding water sucks heat away from the body, hypothermia (the lowering of the body’s core temperature) sets in. A person can become weak and lethargic, and can quickly drown.
When a person’s face is immersed in water that is 70 degrees or less, the Mammalian Diving Reflex kicks in, which can help in survival. The body automatically slows down respiration and heartbeat to where they are nearly undetectable, constricts muscles in the extremities, and directs oxygen-laden blood to the brain and critical organs. This is more pronounced in infants and children, where there have been cases of resuscitation after 40 minutes of submersion. In adults, survival for 25 minutes is possible.
As a result, lifeguards and EMTs go by the axiom, “You are not dead until you are warm and dead.” The MDR reverses quickly, which is why it’s imperative that CPR is administered immediately, and the patient is quickly transported to advanced medical care. The old assertion that brain death occurs four to six minutes after a person stops breathing isn’t always applicable in these cases.
Whenever a person is around water, he should always wear a life jacket around water, especially in cold weather. Swimming in winter coats, clothes and boots is nearly impossible without flotation assistance. When swimming in clothes, the best strokes to use are the side stroke, breast stroke or elementary back stroke. Getting survival training that teaches how to inflate clothes for flotation is also a good idea.
In cold water, a person should keep his head above the surface.
If a person is unable swim to safety, he should assume the American Red Cross HELP position — knees to the chest, keeping body as compact as possible to retain heat. With more than one person in the water, an American Red Cross huddle position — side by side with arms around one another’s waists, as in a football huddle, with knees held close to chests will help retain heat.
Other hypothermia tips: Warm the torso and head first with clothes and blankets. Warming hands and feet next to a fire may feel good, but it forces the coldest blood in a person’s body to his core and may reduce his temperature even more. If there is frost nip (cold, painful red skin on the extremities), warm gradually, and if there is frost bite (pale, no pain, frozen opaque skin), do not rub as it will create more tissue damage. Instead, warm to the frost nip level (pain and red skin) and place pads between affected toes and fingers.
Always keep an updated first aid kit with a survival space blanket available and take an American Red Cross first aid course.
- Submitted by Patrick Massa, chairman of the SML Water Safety Council