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Cold Water Shock and Hypothermia

As we move into the warmer months, it's important to remember our waterways are at their coldest at the start of the season. And if you're not prepared cold water can be dangerous – even deadly.

That's why in this post, we're going to talk about cold water shock and hypothermia, and what you can do to stay safe on the water.

Cold Water Shock

Cold water shock is a sudden and involuntary response to being submerged in cold water, it is a rapid cooling of the body. Cold water shock is most common when the water temperature is below 15°C (59°F), with the highest risk when the water is below 10°C (50°F). Which is pretty much all our waters in the UK! The risk of cold water shock does not reduce in warmer air temperature (in the UK at least) in fact there is a potentially bigger adjustment for our bodies to manage if falling into 15 degree water from 30 degree air temperature than 5 degree water from 5 degree air temp. Individual factors such as body composition and health can also affect a person's susceptibility to cold water shock. When you first hit the cold water, your body's natural reaction is to gasp for air. Then blood vessels tighten making movement difficult. As a result, your blood pressure increases as the heart must work harder to get blood to your extremities. We are at a big risk of not only water inhalation and drowning but also heart attacks even in the fit and healthy. This is why it's so important to wear a PFD (personal floatation device) or BA (buoyancy aid) when you're out on the water – it can keep you afloat even if you're unable to swim. Usually, the first notable sign of someone experiencing cold water shock is panic as they struggle to catch their breath.


Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it and is medically recognised as having a body temp below 35 degrees. You lose heat 4 times quicker in cold water then air of the same temperature. Symptoms of hypothermia can include shivering, confusion, and loss of coordination, and can progress to more severe symptoms such as unconsciousness and cardiac arrest. The risk of hypothermia doesn’t end when you are out of the water, we need to be able to warm our core temperature. The estimated time of survival in water temperature of 4-10 degrees is 1-3 hours but with loss of dexterity being in under 5 minutes. What this means is that within 5 minutes of being in the water if not much sooner, it becomes increasingly difficult to help yourself.

If you suspect that you or someone else is experiencing hypothermia, it's important to get warm as quickly as possible. Remove any wet clothing and wrap yourself in a warm blanket or jacket. If possible, get into a warm, dry environment and drink warm fluids to help raise your body temperature.

Prevention is Key

The best way to avoid cold water shock and hypothermia is to be prepared. Here are our top tips for preventing and managing cold water shock and hypothermia.

  • Wear appropriate clothing for the water temperature - Wearing a wetsuit or drysuit suitable to the environment will help keep you warm and reduce the risk of hypothermia.

  • If you are planning on going in the water, take some time to acclimate to the temperature slowly.

  • Know the signs of cold water shock - Cold water shock can cause sudden gasping and hyperventilation leading to panic. If you experience these symptoms, try to stay calm and control your breathing. If your paddle buddy is experiencing cold water shock, try to coach them through staying calm. It will pass. Remember float to live. Then once able to breath and no longer panicking get them or yourself out the water as quickly as possible.

  • Be prepared for the weather - Check the weather forecast before you go paddleboarding. Dress appropriately for the conditions consider taking dry clothes to change into.

  • Plan your journey – are there other safe exits along your route should there be an emergency?

  • Stay hydrated - Even if you don't feel thirsty, it's important to stay hydrated while paddleboarding. Dehydration can increase the risk of hypothermia.

  • Avoid paddling alone.

  • If someone does fall into cold water get them out of the water as quickly as possible – practice your peer rescues and self-rescues in safe environments.

  • If you suspect someone has hypothermia, seek medical attention immediately and take steps to warm the person up slowly, such as removing wet clothing and wrapping them in warm blankets. Do not use direct heat sources such as hot water bottles or heating pads, as this can cause further damage to cold tissues.

Remember, the water can be dangerous. But with the right preparation and knowledge, you can enjoy your paddleboarding safely and confidently all year round. The safest approach to paddleboarding is to get appropriate tuition, at Daddyboards we run courses and lessons on all water types and cover safety for each environment. Why not got in touch to see how we can help you.

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