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FWC Warns Against Dangers of Cold Water

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) cautions boaters and other outdoor recreationists to be aware of the dangers of falling into cold water during the fall, winter and early spring months. Cold-water immersion initially shocks the body, then causes the victim to lose motor skills and will eventually lead to hypothermia.

Cold-water immersion is life-threatening, especially when it is sudden.

“Many people would not expect cold water to be an issue in Florida,” said Capt. Carol Keyser, FWC’s Boating and Waterways Section. “However, the effects of cold water, particularly when they occur rapidly, can become an issue even if the water temperature is in the 60-degree range.”

{sidebar id=1}Most people would assume hypothermia is the greatest risk in cold water.  However, the effects of cold-water immersion often lead to death by drowning before the effects of hypothermia take hold.

Sudden immersion into cold water can cause cardiac arrest, even for those in good health. The shock of cold water also can cause one to gasp, inhale water and drown. Once in cold water, victims quickly lose muscle coordination and the ability to swim or tread water. Water at 59 degrees Fahrenheit or less can rapidly cause these effects.

“If cold-water immersion occurs, get out of the water as soon as possible,” Keyser said. “If it is not possible to get out of the water, do not swim if you don’t have to, because this will speed up the loss of body heat.”

According to the International Life Saving Federation (, cold water removes heat from the body 25 times faster than cold air. Having a life jacket on when in the water reduces the need to swim or move as much, which in turn, reduces the loss of body heat. It also helps insulate the body, keeping in warmth. If a victim should have a heart attack, a life jacket will keep the victim afloat and will prevent the victim from swallowing water.  

“Should you fall into the water, you will survive longer if you’re wearing a life jacket, whether the water is cold or not,” Keyser said. “It is extremely important, and possibly a matter of life and death, to wear a life jacket at all times while on the water. Protection against the cold is just one more good reason to wear one.”

Though the effects of rapid cold-water immersion are more immediately life-threatening, hypothermia will occur eventually if a victim remains in the cold. Hypothermia can occur in water or on land.

Hypothermia exists when the body loses heat faster than it can replenish it, which can result in death. Symptoms of hypothermia include paleness of the skin and slow, shallow and erratic breathing. Victims should seek medical attention if exposed to the cold for a prolonged period of time.

To prevent hypothermia, in addition to moving as little as possible, huddle if there is more than one person in the water or if together on land. Ironically, if hypothermic, an individual may feel inclined to remove clothing; however, it is important to keep clothes on for warmth. If floating in a life jacket, fold arms and legs to contain the body’s warmth. Concentrate on normal breathing to avoid hyperventilation, which can lead to unconsciousness.

“Preparation is the key to having a positive outdoor experience,” Keyser said. “If the weather is inclement, postpone your activity. When going outside in cold weather, dress appropriately, and when boating, always wear a life jacket.”

To learn more about life jackets and boating, visit

This information originally published on November 13, 2009.

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