Can Swimming in Cold Water Make You Sick?

We’ve all felt that invigorating rush when taking the plunge into a pool, lake, or ocean, only to realize that the water is significantly colder than anticipated. There’s that sharp intake of breath, the shock racing through your veins, and the frantic thoughts of “Why didn’t I dip a toe in first?”.

Can Swimming in Cold Water Make You Sick

This experience is not only common but practically a rite of passage for many of us who enjoy a good swim. But have you ever wondered what effect that icy embrace might have on your health? Can swimming in cold water make you sick or compromise your health?

In this article, we will explore the potential risks and impacts of swimming in cold water on our health, and provide some tips on how to protect yourself while enjoying the invigorating thrill of a cold swim.

Can swimming in cold water increase the chances of getting a cold or flu?

Contrary to popular belief, cold weather or exposure to cold water does not directly cause cold or flu. These illnesses are caused by viruses. However, cold exposure can lower your body’s immunity response and make you more susceptible to catching a virus, especially if you are fatigued or already under the weather.

What are the health risks associated with swimming in cold water?

The main health risks associated with swimming in cold water are hypothermia and sudden immersion syndrome.

Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing a dangerously low body temperature.

Sudden immersion syndrome can result in a gasp reflex, causing you to inhale water, or a sudden increase in heart rate and blood pressure that may lead to cardiac arrest, especially in those with pre-existing heart conditions.

Some people may also experience “after drop,” a condition where the body’s core temperature continues to decrease after exiting the water, which can lead to chills, fatigue, and in severe cases, loss of consciousness.

Other risks include skin problems, ear infections, and the potential exacerbation of symptoms in those with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Can you get sick immediately after swimming in cold water?

While you might not fall ill immediately after swimming in cold water, certain symptoms related to cold exposure can appear quickly. This includes early signs of hypothermia like shivering, slurred speech, and a decrease in motor function.

Additionally, a sudden immersion in cold water can cause an immediate increase in heart rate and blood pressure, potentially causing problems for those with pre-existing heart conditions.

How does cold water affect the body when swimming?

When you immerse your body in cold water, it reacts in a number of ways.

Firstly, your heart rate and blood pressure can increase rapidly, which can be dangerous for people with cardiovascular issues.

Secondly, cold water can stimulate a “cold shock response” which includes involuntary gasping and hyperventilation. Over time, exposure to cold water can lead to a decrease in core body temperature, potentially resulting in hypothermia.

Moreover, cold water can affect your muscle and nerve function, potentially leading to cramps and difficulties in swimming or moving.

Can regular exposure to cold water build resistance to colds or other illnesses?

Swimming in cold water has been shown to stimulate the immune system, causing an increase in white blood cell count and other immune response markers.

However, repeated exposure to cold water can also put the body under stress, which may lower the immune system’s defenses and increase the risk of infection in the long run.

How can I protect myself from getting sick while swimming in cold water?

To protect yourself from getting sick while swimming in cold water, it’s important to acclimate your body gradually. This means slowly increasing the time you spend in cold water over several weeks or even months.

Wearing appropriate gear like wetsuits, neoprene gloves, and swim caps can also help. It’s also vital to warm up properly after a cold swim to prevent “after drop”, and to listen to your body and stop swimming if you feel unwell.

How long is it safe to swim in cold water?

The amount of time it’s safe to swim in cold water varies depending on a number of factors, including the water temperature, your level of acclimation, your clothing, and your individual health.

For instance, at a water temperature of 60°F, you can be at risk of hypothermia in 30 minutes or less if you aren’t wearing any insulating gear such as a wetsuit.

As a rule of thumb, if you’re new to cold water swimming, it’s wise to start with very short swims and gradually increase your time in the water as your body adapts to the water temperature.

What is considered “cold” when it comes to cold water swimming?

“Cold” water temperature can be subjective and varies from person to person. However, in general, water at or below 70°F (21°C) can be considered cold water for most swimmers. Preferably the water temperature should be closer to 80°F to feel nice and comfortable, otherwise you will have to swim in a wetsuit to prevent hypothermia.

What should I do if I start feeling unwell after swimming in cold water?

If you start feeling unwell after swimming in cold water, it’s important to get out of the water and warm up as quickly as possible. Symptoms of hypothermia include intense shivering, loss of coordination, slurred speech, and drowsiness.

If you or someone else experiences these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. It’s also a good idea to drink a warm, sugary drink and eat something to help your body generate heat. If symptoms persist, seek emergency medical services.