149 people in Canada die every year due to cold water immersion, according to Transport Canada. In water colder than 5 degrees Celsius, you can lose consciousness in 20 minutes. Falling into icy water can lead to hypothermia and death in less than 2 minutes. Even warmer water can cool the body's temperature to the point you cannot function, so you fast action is needed. Cold air can cause hypothermia too.

Ted Rankine, Director of the Canadian Safe Boating Council says "Far too many people die within swimming distance of safety, such as a boat, dock or the shore, because of the initial effects of cold water immersion." Suddenly falling in cold water can cause shock, involuntary gasping and hyperventilation, followed by loss of movement and the inability to get out or swim.

The Symptoms

  1. Body core temperature below 35 degrees Celsius.
  2. Shivering, the normal response to increase the body's production of heat.
  3. Numbness in arms and legs, confusion.
  4. Unconsciousness.


  1. Remember to wear proper clothing and a PFD, especially in the spring and fall when the water and air are coldest.
  2. If you find yourself in cold water, get as much of your body out of the water as possible.
  3. Do not swim ashore. It's estimated that, in a lifejacket, you will lose heat 35% faster if you swim than if you just stay still. (Recent research shows that survival is better by swimming ashore if there's little chance of being found quickly.)
  4. Tuck your chin into your chest, cross your arms against your torso, and pull your knees up. This is the survival position and can help you survivve up to 50% longer.
  5. If there are 2 of you, share body heat by wrapping your arms around each other and getting as much body contact as possible! What a way to go!

How to Survive a Fall into Cold Water

The best way to survive a fall into cold water is by following the 1-10-1 rule accepted by search and rescue professionals.

People should use the first minute to regain control of breathing before trying their best to escape the water during the next 10 minutes. After that time, energy will be drained significantly.

The body generally has about one hour before the heart stops, although chances of survival vary according to other factors, such as fitness and body fat levels. Anything that impairs the ability to think clearly increases the risk of drowning. [Vancouver Sun]

How to Treat Hypothermia

It's possible to save someone in an advanced state of cold from exposure to air or water. It's estimated that as many as 25% of hypothermia deaths are due to rough handling during rescue.

  1. Get the person out of danger (treating them gently).
  2. If the victim is unconscious, determine if there is breathing and begin "mouth-to-mouth" rescusutation if none. Check for a heatbeat. Do not perform CPR if there is a heartbeat as it can cause heart failure.
  3. Make them warm and dry. Do not rub their skin to try to increase circulation. Use blankets. Warm slowly.
  4. Give luke-warm liquid such as water or juice. Never use alcohol. Candy bars or honey may be beneficial.
  5. Get the person to a hospital right away.

Many thanks to the information in "Today's Boating" magazine (Fall 96) and government pamphlets on hypothermia.


Your body cools down many times faster in cold water than in air, causing death in as short as 15 minutes. Your size, body fat and movement play a part. This chart indicates how long you can expect to survive.

Water temp. (F) Celsius (C) Exhaustion or
Estimated survival
32 F 0 C Less than 15 minutes 15-45 minutes
32-40 F 0-5 C 15-30 minutes 30-90 minutes
40-50 F 5-10 C 30-60 1-3 hrs.
50-60 F 10-16 C 1-2 hours 1-6 hours
60-70 F 16-21 C 2-7 hours 2-40 hours
70-80 F 21-27 C 3-12 hours 3 hours up
More than 80 F More than 27 C Indefinitely Indefinitely

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