As of: 07/12/2023 6:00 p.m

Bathing accidents occur again and again in lakes, rivers and the sea. Many swimmers underestimate the pitfalls of the water. Cold shock can also lead to drowning.

According to the German Life Saving Society (DLRG), at least 355 people drowned in Germany in 2022. Around 87 percent of the fatal accidents occurred in inland waterways. 147 people drowned in lakes alone. Far fewer people (18) lost their lives in Meer. Carelessness and ignorance of the dangers are usually the causes of the accidents, according to the DLRG. Lifeguards are very concerned that fewer and fewer children can swim safely.

Cold Shock: How the body reacts to cold water

The main problem is the coldness of the water. If the air is already warm but the water is still cold, the body has to cope with large temperature differences. The water doesn’t have to be particularly cold. Temperatures of 12 to 16 degrees are enough. Especially in quarry ponds, it can be significantly cooler in deep places than in shallow ones.

During a cold shock, two of the body’s natural protective mechanisms come into conflict. The so-called diving reflex can set in when you completely immerse yourself in the water. Breathing stops, heart rate slows. In addition, the circuit reacts simultaneously to the water temperature. The cold makes your heart beat faster and your breathing quickens. The body therefore receives two different impulses: In the worst case, there is a so-called conflict of the autonomic nervous system. The result: people gasp underwater. The lungs fill with water. The heart stops beating. Victims drown within minutes.

Swimming accidents: Older people are particularly at risk

Anyone can experience cold shock. Older people or people with previous cardiovascular diseases are particularly at risk in cold water. Anyone suffering from cardiac arrhythmias should only swim in warm water and under supervision.

Difference between cold shock and hypothermia

Cold shock is not to be confused with hypothermia. The body protects itself from the cold – without causing a conflict in the body. This is associated with blue lips because the blood vessels constrict. The body tries to compensate for this with muscle activity. That is why those affected tremble. A drop in body temperature below 30 degrees can lead to unconsciousness. With severe hypothermia there is a risk of cardiac arrhythmia, which can lead to cardiac arrest.

Adrenaline release: Danger of drowning

Although swimming is actually very healthy, the cold releases adrenaline, which can lead to cardiac arrhythmias, loss of consciousness and cardiac arrest. And: For the body it is a top performance to keep the temperature in cold water constant for a long time. In order to protect the life-sustaining organs, the blood supply to the arms and legs is first reduced – this can restrict mobility and thus lead to drowning.

Currents, sudden depths: the dangers of swimming are often underestimated

Swimming accidents often happen because the dangers are underestimated or are not immediately obvious: when “stagnant water” such as quarry ponds fall away after a few meters, it can be treacherous for swimmers. The sudden bottomless and possibly cold depth can be dangerous, especially for non-swimmers. You panic or go into cold shock.

The same applies to currents or eddies in the surf of seas or in rivers. There, currents can carry even good swimmers for miles. In such cases, the rescue workers have no chance of finding the aborted. Creepers or fish below the water surface that wrap themselves around the legs of swimmers can also trigger panic. Bow waves from ships can also be a deadly hazard on shore.

Swim distances are underestimated

Swimmers often underestimate distances and overestimate their own capabilities. Once they have swum out too far, they hardly have a chance when they are exhausted. Even experienced swimmers eventually get tired and cold. Swimming in flowing waters is particularly dangerous because the actual distances to be swum there are many times longer than it appears, depending on the flow speed.

Be sure to observe bathing rules before swimming

Basically, things that can overwhelm people are dangerous on land – but much more dangerous in the water. If you don’t feel well, if you’re sick, if you’ve eaten too much, if you’re exhausted or tired, you shouldn’t go into the water.

Especially when the temperature is high, you should be careful when entering the water to get your body used to the cold.

Before swimming, the following also applies to people without previous illnesses: cool down slowly so that the body can get used to the cold. First cool hands and feet and then submerge once. If the temperature is bearable, you can start swimming. The old rule “Don’t go into the water with a full stomach” should also be observed. Because the body is busy digesting food after eating, a sudden cold stimulus can lead to nausea and vomiting. There is a risk of choking on the vomit. Alcohol consumption makes you careless and limits your perception. Swimmers should swim in supervised waters whenever possible. Then you can also enjoy the cool water.

“Dead Man” helps with exhaustion or cramps

For safe swimming in open water, everyone should master the “starfish” or “dead man” position – relaxed lying on your back, with a calm breath without exertion. This helps to stay afloat for quite a while, even if you are exhausted or have cramps.

How do I recognize drowning people?

Often nobody notices when someone is about to drown. People in need are so exhausted and often so panicked that all they do is keep their airways clear. Also, when in shock, the person does not shout or wave, as they are fixated on not going under. This is reflex controlled. In addition, when water is inhaled, the glottis cramps. So no more water should get into the lungs. As a result, those affected cannot breathe or call out.

The following signs indicate that a person swimming is in distress:

the head keeps submerging under the water affected person stays upright in one place panicked splashing affected person does not scream

Measures to rescue from drowning

If someone is in trouble in the water, help must be called immediately. Here is what first responders should do:

Throw emergency number 112 to the affected person who can hold on to something (e.g. a lifebelt, soccer ball, air mattress) only after careful consideration, if the situation and your own constitution allow it, go into the water yourself to help the drowning person to the shore pick up. Your own safety comes first. As soon as the person is back on land, start immediately with first aid measures such as chest compressions It is safest to go swimming on patrolled beaches.

Trained lifeguards with boards or rescue canoes can help quickly on patrolled beaches. This is especially true in situations where drowning victims are panicking, unresponsive, or not assisting or even struggling to rescue themselves. The lifeguards practice such situations over and over again and know exactly what to do. Bathing rules, guarded bathing areas and lots of additional safety-related information can be found on the DLRG website. Alternatively, smartphone users can download the free DLRG app.

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Further information

The DLRG recommends only going into the water on patrolled beaches. Tips for safe swimming in the North Sea and Baltic Sea. more

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Current | 07/12/2023 | 4 p.m

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