Cold Water Immersion - As Bad As It Sounds

When teaching our wilderness first aid courses, I often find I don't have time to talk about all the things I'd like to.  One topic that rarely gets the attention it deserves is cold water immersion.  Fortunately, the much-ballyhooed Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht has - of course - got us covered.  

Check out coldwaterbootcamp.com, to see what happens when 9 volunteers - who cannot have fully understood what they were getting themselves into - are subjected to 6° C water.  The videos are... 

...wait for it...

...chilling.

Of particular interest is Dr. Giesbrecht's 1:10:1 rule , which outlines the critical phases you go through after cold water immersion.

  • Cold Shock: Irregular, very rapid breathing immediately after immersion in frigid water, and lasting for 1 minute.  This hyperventilating breathing pattern will cost you oxygen, increases the risk of taking in water, and tires you out quickly.  Concentrate on controlling breathing and keeping your airway clear.
  • Cold Incapacitation: During the next 10 minutes, you will lose motor control of your hands, feet, arms and legs.  Concentrate on self-rescue, or finding some way to keep your airway clear.  Otherwise, if you aren't wearing a life jacket, you will likely drown. Fun Fact: If you have fallen through ice and don't have the strength to pull yourself out, you can put your arms and upper chest on the ice and allow them to freeze there, protecting your airway until help (hopefully) arrives.  I told you it's as bad as it sounds.
  • Hypothermia: It can take up to an hour for unconsciousness due to hypothermia to occur, even in very cold water.  This is very dependent on body type and prevention measures - information that you should definitely check out on Dr. Giesbrecht's website!  

As for assessing and treating hypothermic patients, check out our blog entry on just that subject.

Stay warm!

Kieran Hartle

Coast Wilderness Medical Training, 704-1960 Alberni Street, Vancouver, BC