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Sudden Failure of Swimming in Cold Water

Br Med J 1969; 1 doi: (Published 22 February 1969) Cite this as: Br Med J 1969;1:480
  1. W. R. Keatinge,
  2. C. Prys-Roberts,
  3. K. E. Cooper,
  4. A. J. Honour,
  5. J. Haight


    To investigate the effect of cold water on swimming four men who declared themselves good swimmers were immersed fully clothed on separate days in water at 23·7° and 4·7° C. The time that they were able to swim in the cold water was much shorter than in the warm. The two shortest swims ended after 1·5 and 7·6 minutes, before rectal temperature fell, when the men suddenly floundered after developing respiratory distress with breathing rates of 56–60/min. The other cold swims, by the two fattest men, ended less abruptly with signs of general and peripheral hypothermia.

    It is concluded that swimming in cold water was stopped partly by respiratory reflexes in the thin men and hypothermia in the fat, and partly by the cold water's high viscosity. The longer swimming times of the fat men are attributed largely to their greater buoyancy enabling them to keep their heads above water during the early hyperventilation.

    The findings explain some reports of sudden death in cold water. It is clearly highly dangerous to attempt to swim short distances to shore without a life-jacket in water near 0° C.