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What is cold water shock?

SEATTLE — People around Puget Sound hear the warnings all the time this time of year: Avoid swimming in lakes and rivers if you can, because the water is still very cold despite warmer temperatures .

The risk is experiencing “cold water shock,” when the body reacts dangerously to being in water that is 50 degrees or colder.

Dr. Stephen Morris, an emergency room physician based at UW Medicine Montlake and Harborview Medical Center, has seen cases like this countless times.

“People don’t realize that getting into really cold water like we have here in the Northwest can kill you in a minute,” Morris said.

Morris said one of the first dangers is the involuntary blowing of air and the risk of water entering the lungs during that reaction.

“At this time of year in particular, we see people going into the water thinking they just want to swim, cool off and have a good time, and then find themselves in a really terrifying and potentially life-threatening situation.” , Morris said.

Although there is a recent trend of people doing “polar dips” claiming that it helps relieve exercise-related muscle damage and strengthens your immune system, Morris doesn’t recommend it for everyone.

“If you’re diving with a polar bear and you have one of your friends on either side of you, it’s a little safer,” Morris said.

The shock factor of accidentally falling into very cold water or diving into deeper water to swim can make a difference.

“It’s very, very different from someone jumping into a cold lake and not knowing what they’re getting into,” Morris said.

Cold water shock can result from being in water that is 50 degrees or colder, as is the case now, from mountain snow runoff.

“To paraphrase one of the authors from the American Heart Association, you are not a polar bear,” Morris said.

For humans, shock can cause involuntary gasps, hyperventilation, and even cardiac arrest and other heart problems.

“It increases your heart rate significantly, it increases your blood pressure significantly and if you have an underlying health condition it can be enough to cause a stroke, a heart attack, it has caused heart attacks in very young people people,” Morris said. .

And then panic can set in.

“So you have an altered mental state, so you’re in a dangerous, life-threatening situation, and all of a sudden you’re making bad decisions or you’re not able to understand what’s going on ” Morris said.

Morris added that if you safely remove a person who is experiencing cold shock from the water, bring them to safety and warm them gently, immediately.

“Skin-to-skin contact is a very safe way to warm someone up,” Morris said.

He said to call 9-1-1 immediately because they may still need medical attention, even if they appear to be OK.