Why We Gasp When Diving Into Cold Water

In 2015, 14-year-old Cameron Gosling died from cold water shock after jumping into the river on a hot summer’s day. Sadly, Cameron’s death is not an isolated case. About 400 people die annually as a result of being immersed in cold water. Most are males under 30 years old, and most are reported to be good swimmers. The phenomenon — known as “cold shock” — is often mistaken for hypothermia (low body temperature), but hypothermia takes at least 30 minutes before it’s fatal. Those who have died from cold shock die within a few minutes. Research shows that being immersed in cold water causes a “gasp response” and uncontrollable hyperventilation. The resulting loss of control over breathing makes the odds of inhaling the 1½ cups of water needed to drown much more likely. At the same time, being immersed in cold water puts a huge strain on the heart, which can cause arrhythmia. So, how do you protect yourself? The rule of thumb is six 3-minute dips in cold water, with your head out of the water, can reduce water shock and increase your chances of being able to hold your breath on immersion and so avoid drowning.