“Water temperatures lag far behind air temperature,” said Mike Loney, vice president of Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue. “In this region, water rarely gets above 70 degrees. Water in the 50-60 degree range can quickly become life-threatening if you're not wearing protective clothing (such as a dry or wetsuit).”
There are two primary dangers — hypothermia and cold water shock. Understanding the causes, risk factors and treatments can help ensure a safe summer.
Hypothermia is when an individual's body temperature drops from the normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit to below 95 degrees, causing the heart, nervous system and internal organs to start shutting down.
“You can spend a long period of time in water and not realize how cold it really is,” said Shawneri Guzman, coordinator for Safe Kids Snohomish County in partnership with Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. “The body becomes very cold very quickly. Blood flow to hands and feet reduces and suddenly you're unable to self-rescue.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, additional symptoms include: severe shivering, clumsiness, confusion, drowsiness, loss of consciousness, shallow breathing, slurred speech and a weak pulse.
“Many people are aware that you can die from hypothermia itself within 10 to 30 minutes, but what is sometimes missed is that you can become incapacitated within only a few minutes,” Loney said.
Children are at higher risk because of their smaller body mass, which loses heat more quickly. Loney added that taller and thinner adults can be at risk for similar reasons. The Mayo Clinic considers adults 65 and older more susceptible since their bodies regulate body heat less efficiently. Alcohol and drugs, including prescription medications, can also affect body temperature.
The best prevention is to use the buddy system and wear a life jacket.
“A life jacket basically buys time. It isn't necessarily a life-saving device itself, but it does keeps your head above water (if your extremities freeze) until somebody finds you,” Guzman said.
Rivers pose a greater hazard, Loney said. They remain colder year-round because of snow runoff. Particularly in the Northwest, any body of water will be colder and potentially more dangerous at higher mountain elevations.
Cold water shock
Cold water shock can imperil even experienced swimmers. Those with no intention of being in the water — such as capsizing in a boat — are particularly at risk.
“When you're suddenly immersed in cold water, like jumping into a lake, the first thing that can happen is a gasp reflex, which causes you to inhale water,” Guzman explained. “That triggers shock, panic and hyperventilation. It happens very quickly, and death can occur within minutes.”
Guzman cited May and June as particularly dangerous months for cold-water-related drownings. Sudden sunny weather may cause water surfaces to feel warm, but the temperature can be 40 degrees just inches below.
Supervision is particularly important to prevent young children from accidentally falling off boats, docks or wandering into open water.
“The number one message is to actively supervise children,” Guzman said. “It's easy to become distracted talking, texting or eating. We advise adults to create a water ‘Watcher Card.' You physically hand it to another adult to keep watch when you need to focus on something else.”
The Safe Kids program also encourages the use of designated swim areas. They are contained within a known water depth, free of debris and typically do not include riskier waterways such as rivers.
Older adolescents and adults should acclimate to cold water by finding a shallow spot and immersing their bodies slowly.
In an emergency
Immediately call 911 if a cold-water emergency occurs. Maintain a general idea of your location even in remote areas, noting landmarks, entry points and miles from the nearest road, to help responders find you.
When seeing someone in need of immediate rescue, entering the water yourself is a last resort.
“Year after year, someone at the scene tries to rescue the victim and ends up being the one to drown,” Loney said. “The best thing is to first throw a rope, even a stick, and pull them in or keep them afloat. The next choice is using a boat, raft or some object to reach them.”
After pulling someone from the water, immediately begin warming them with available dry blankets, towels or clothing. Even if an individual appears to improve, wait for medical help.
“In a hypothermic situation, someone can feel recovered and become too active too soon. The cold water from the hands and feet rushes to the core causing body temperature to drop again to dangerous levels,” Loney said.
The single most important cold-water precaution is to wear a life jacket. Drownings can occur within minutes. A life jacket buys time and keeps your head above water until rescuers arrive.
- Buy life jackets with the Coast-Guard approved label printed on the side along with the appropriate weight/size.
- A jacket either too small or large can endanger children. Do not put an adult-sized life jacket on a child because it can cover the child's head.
- A properly sized life jacket should be snug around the torso. You should be able to pick a child up by the life jacket's shoulders without it slipping up the neck.
- For toddlers and very small kids, purchase a life jacket with a head support.
- Check the life jacket's fit on an annual basis. Children can outgrow jackets rapidly.
- Inner tubes, water wings and other toys are not life-saving devices.
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