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Chart showing stages of cold water immersion: cold shock, swim failure, immersion hypothermia, post-immersion collapse

Sudden immersion into cold water can cause immediate, involuntary gasping; hyperventilation; panic; and vertigo­—all of which can result in water inhalation and drowning. Immersion in cold water can also cause sudden changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and heart rhythm, which also can result in death.

  • Prepare for boating in cold water conditions by always wearing a secured PFD (life jacket). Also wear layered clothing for insulation.
  • The best prevention is to take all measures necessary to avoid capsizing your boat or falling into cold water in the first place. If you do fall into cold water:
    • Don’t panic. Try to get control of your breathing. Hold onto something, or stay as still as possible until your breathing is controlled.
    • When your breathing is under control, perform the most important functions first before you lose dexterity (10–15 minutes after immersion).
    • Put on a PFD immediately if you don’t already have one on. Don’t take your clothes off unless absolutely necessary—they help insulate you.
    • Focus on getting out of the water quickly before you lose full use of your hands, arms, and legs. Try to reboard your boat, even if it is swamped or capsized. Get as much of your body out of the water as possible—the rate of heat loss will be slower than if immersed in water.
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