How to prevent hypothermia if you fall into cold water

Person in cold water
Person in cold water

Hypothermia is a physical condition that occurs when the body temperature drops off below the normal 98.6° F. Cold water causes hypothermia 25 times faster than cold air. If you are an outdoors person that spends a lot of time near water in the colder months, be careful. Your brain, heart, and lungs are the first to suffer from the cold, slowing down the vital functions. About 600 people in the US die from hypothermia each year.

How quickly a person becomes hypothermic depends on a variety of factors including health, behavior, physical condition, clothing, and also the surroundings. All people react differently to the cold, even under the same conditions.

How long can a person survive in cold water?

Cold water causes hypothermia 25 times faster than cold air
Cold water causes hypothermia 25 times faster than cold air

The expected time of survival in cold water depends on many factors such as swimming ability, body size, cold tolerance, shivering response, body fat, alcohol levels, will to live, psychological state, layers of clothing, and flotation devices.

If the temperature of the water is 32.5° F, a person can survive up to 45 minutes, but the body will get exhausted and damaged in less than 15 minutes. The higher the temperature, the more chances you have of surviving. For example, at 60–70° F you can survive in the water from 2 to 40 hours.

How to improve the chances of survival?

If you fall into cold water, your body heat is the essential factor that can help you survive until help arrives. If you have a life vest and the water temperature is 50° F, then if swimming you will have about 2 hours and if holding still 2.7 hours and holding with some kind of support up to 4 hours. Wearing a personal flotation device will increase your chances of survival. Try to keep as many parts of your body out of the water as is practically possible. Never take off your clothes! Remember that you always need to remain as still as possible to conserve energy, unless you see a floating object, another person, or the shore is nearby. In these cases, you would be best to swim and save your life. In any other situation, remain still.

Preventing hypothermia

Cold water
Cold water

Whenever you do your outdoor activities near water, DON’T WEAR COTTON! Wet cotton is heavy and it’s the worst insulator. Stick with a wicking fabric next to your skin, using insulating layers of fleece or wool. The outer layers of your clothes should be waterproof. Clothing made of material like Gore-Tex will keep the cold off your body for a while and won’t pull you down.


What you should never do in cold water in case of no flotation device is to move and swim without a purpose. Any movement will release body heat which will lower your survival chances. If you see a boat or a flotation device near, then swim toward it and try to keep your head above the water all the time. Don’t panic, concentrate, and try not to lose consciousness. People who drink a lot of alcohol have fewer chances of surviving because the alcohol damages the thermoregulation of the body and lowers the cold resistance.

Hypothermia Symptoms

  • Shivering
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Numbness in limbs, loss of dexterity, clumsiness
  • Pain from cold
  • Denies problem
  • Semiconscious or unconscious
  • Muscular rigidity increases
  • Little or no apparent breathing
  • Pulse slow and weak, or no pulse found
Cold river
Cold river

To treat the first symptoms of hypothermia you should try to warm the body, increase the temperature, eat sweets, drink warm drinks, no alcohol! If the symptoms are advanced and the person is numb, don’t give them any food or drinks, go to the nearest hospital immediately. There are some cases when you can help, but if the person stayed in the water for too long, the sufferer needs professional medical help as soon as possible. Good luck!

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stef-zisovska is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival