With swimming pools and open waters ready for the post-pandemic transition, a cold dip may just be what you need to feel the outside world as it is. But, you might ask: can you get sick from swimming in cold water?
It’s common to catch a cold if you expose your body to temperatures it’s not accustomed to. In the worst possible cases, you might get hypothermia, cold shock, chilblains, and cramps. While there are downsides to swimming in cold waters, the health benefits may just outweigh the risks.
How Your Body Reacts to Cold Water?
Typically, when the skin comes into contact with cold water, the first thing that detects it is what you call the skin’s cold receptors. After that, you’ll see an increase in breathing that is caused by an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
However, for those with pre-existing heart disease or hypertension, the effect may result in deadly heart attacks.
In fact, it’s possible to aspirate a lethal amount of water since you’ll experience abnormal inhalations. So, it’s important to know how to prepare before going on a swim and what to do during and after your swim. But first, let’s talk about the possible risks more than the flu-like symptoms we are accustomed to.
Hypothermia occurs mostly in cold weather and in the polar regions when your body heat reduces faster than it can generate. While a wetsuit may keep your body warm in open water, it does not protect your head, hands, or feet, which are at risk. The following are early signs of hypothermia:
- Disoriented and perplexed
- Difficulty with movement and speech
- Hunger and exhaustion
- A fast heartbeat
- Cold incapacitation
The “cold shock” response is the initial cardiorespiratory response elicited when the skin is suddenly cooled or when the swimmers swim.
But, this cold water shock really comes with a “surprise” as it can put a strain on your heart and cause sudden loss of control over breathing, which increases the likelihood of breathing in water, even the small amount necessary to drown.
Chilblains, or pernio, occur when the small blood vessels in your skin become inflamed as a result of exposure to cold. These clusters of small blood vessels (capillary beds) become red and swollen.
In addition, Chilblains can take you by surprise, as they do not have to be that cold for you to get them, and even small cold air or cold water exposure will do. They can develop if your skin is exposed to temperatures as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period of time.
Cramps are also a staple for every swimmer but most certainly for cold swimming outdoors. It can occur anywhere, and some individuals are more susceptible than others. If you do experience cramping, it would be best to float on your back and call for assistance.
How to Define a Healthy Cold Water?
Despite the aforementioned downsides, cold waters are still mostly a healthy companion for health-conscious swimmers. Although there is no precise useful measure of the ideal temperature, the general consensus is that the pool or water should be 25° Celsius or less.
Although the optimal dose of cold water required to reap the full benefits has not been determined, experts estimate that it takes approximately 20 minutes in the water. This, however, will vary according to the individual. The colder the water, the more quickly the benefits begin to manifest.
Boosts Immune System
Preliminary research indicates that cold exposure, combined with breathing techniques and meditation, may aid in immune system boosting and white blood cells.
Recorded experiments found that subjects exposed to cold after a 10-day meditation and breathwork intervention increased their levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines, which are involved in initiating the inflammatory response and defending against pathogens.
Your body becomes more adept at mobilizing its defenses over time. There is a reason why so many people who swim in cold water have an improved immune function and are rarely ill or have fewer infections.
Generally, swimming in any pool is effective for high-intensity cardio and strength-training exercises. But, adding the element of cold water makes the exercise more strenuous, as you work more to keep a warm body temperature.
While swimming in cold water, your heart is forced to work harder, and the same goes for your body just to keep everything warm and not lose heat. Not to mention, there’s also the added weight of your gear and the time spent warming up and shivering afterward. So, it’s no wonder why it reduces body fat more for a great form and good health.
Increased Susceptibility to Stress
Along with all of these physical benefits, cold water immersion can also have a significant impact on mental health and stress hormones. Regular cold water swims, according to research, are a viable alternative to antidepressants, not to mention a general mood booster.
As anyone who has braved an icy dip will attest, the initial physiological responses are actually beneficial. Evidence shows that when you swim regularly in cold water, it reduces your stress. The body connecting with cold water is the important part here.
It is possible that swimmers do not become acclimatized to the water when they started swimming; rather, they become accustomed to their body’s reaction, which becomes less severe.
The true miracle is that the reduced stress response occurs in all stressful situations, not just those involving exposure to cold water. Meaning that there’s a chance that your response to other stressful events can be reduced.
Who Gains the Most from Cold Water Swimming?
Swimming is one of the best exercises one can do because it works out all of the major muscle groups; it’s also low-impact, nearly injury-free, and can be done well into old age.
Although swimming in cold waters may appear to be an activity reserved for only the most daring athletes or those participating in competitive swimming, this discipline is actually accessible to everyone, even in your local pool.
In fact, it’s one of the few extremes in which a higher BMI is beneficial. Thin people are more sensitive to cold water than those who are adequately covered and are therefore more likely to become hypothermic.
What to Do Before, During, and After Swimming in Cold Water?
Now, let’s talk about how many swimmers can fully benefit from a cold water swim, whether on a pool swim or open water.
Take Cold Showers
First things first: get acclimated to the temperature. Well, the best thing to do is to begin your training for open water swimming or cold water swimming pools by showering in cold water at home. Probably, this is the optimal way for beginners, even nonswimmers, to prepare for submersion in extremely cold water.
Swimming in cold water or cold sea, particularly for winter swimming, can be dangerous. So, it would be best to select a safe location or a swimming pool with adequate staffing and ensure that you understand how to exit the water before entering. Side note: never swim in cold waters on your own.
Some risks associated with cold water swimming can often be contracted simply by not dressing appropriately. Always remember to wear a wet suit, especially in winter.
A wetsuit clings to your body tightly, keeping you warm enough to swim in the coldest of waters. In fact, most competitive swimmers wear them not just for warmth but also to improve their buoyancy and for water temperature fluctuations.
Enter the Water Gradually
Don’t get too excited! It’s best to avoid jumping or diving into cold water to not trigger an extremely cold water shock. Instead, ease into it gradually.
Yes, the human body is extremely adaptable to its surroundings. Nonetheless, you’ll benefit greatly from allowing your body time to adjust. So, enter the water slowly by taking between a half-a-minute to a minute duration.
Know Your Limits
When you’re new at cold water swimming, test out your limit and understand it. Begin with short sessions in the water and work your way up to longer durations. If you feel unusually tired, fatigued, or achy, don’t push yourself and exit the water immediately.
Among the numerous precautions to take for cold water swimmers, post-exercises are something you don’t want to overlook.
Bear in mind that even after exiting the water, the temperature and wind on land may pose a risk of hypothermia. According to experts, once you exit the water, your body continues to cool for approximately 20-30 minutes.
You should immediately dry off, remove wet clothing, and dress in warm clothing, including gloves and thick socks. And before you resume your normal routine, have a hot beverage, take a deep breath, and assess your mood.