Utah State Parks Blog

What To Expect When You Fall In Cold Water

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This is a bad situation…

You’ve heard our tips on how to be safe when out boating on Cold Water; but sometimes things happen, and you can find yourself in a bad situation.

Unless you’ve directly experienced it before, it’s hard to imagine what being immersed in cold water actually feels like.

For example, it is a common misunderstanding that if you fall into cold water you can die from Hypothermia in a matter of minutes.   The truth is, it can be upwards of 30 minutes to 1 hour before a person can die from Hypothermia.

There are a few physiological stages that occur before Hypothermia sets in:
  • Cold Water Shock Response – This is due to the rapid cooling of the skin and creates uncontrollable breathing or gasping that can last 1-2 minutes.  Drowning can occur during this phase if your head goes under the surface and water is inhaled into the lungs.  This is one of many benefits of wearing a life jacket.
  • Cold Water Incapacitation – This can occur any where from 5 – 15 minutes from falling into the water.  The body is preserving it’s warmth and is restricting blood flow to the extremities (arms and legs).  With the reduction of blood flow the muscles and nerves are not functioning well and you will loose any meaningful movement of them.  Once this occurs you will not be able to keep your head above water and the only thing to keep you afloat will be a life jacket..
  • Hypothermia – Can occur from 30 minutes or more from falling into the water for an adult.  Knowing this one item will reduce panic if you fall into cold water, you have time to plan, make good decisions and survive!  Again, this is dependent on you wearing a life jacket or having something to keep you afloat.

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