picture of a cold pond surrounded by snowby James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

A few days ago, in a nearby town, a man in his forties drowned. Apparently he was chasing his dog, and they fell through the ice. He got the dog out but not himself. Horrible And, although I don’t know any details, it makes me think of the many deaths like this that are preventable.

Of course there’s the obvious: Don’t walk on thin ice. The weather’s been pretty warm here in Colorado, and the ice on the ponds is never very thick anyway. But, according to one article I read, our firemen and rescuers spend a fair amount of time chasing people off iced ponds.

So what can you do if you or someone else takes an accidental plunge? It helps to know what happens when you fall into cold water.

  1. It shocks your system.
    Your blood pressure goes up, and your heart may beat irregularly. You could even have a heart attack.
  2. You reflexively gasp for breath.
    You can’t help it because of the shock. If your head is immersed, you suck in water. Even if that doesn’t get you, it’s very hard to hold your breath under water. It’s just one of those things the cold does. It makes you breathe harder and faster.
  3. After the first ten to fifteen minutes, you lose control of your muscles.
    They’re weak and stiff, and you can’t hold onto anything like a rope or stick that may be thrown to pull you out. You have trouble swimming.
  4. Hypothermia sets in.
    If you haven’t drowned by now, you go through the stages of hypothermia. (See my five-part series on this.)
How to Get Out of a Hole in the Ice
  • Try to climb out where you fell in.
    You know what the ice is like there, and it was strong enough to hold you the first time.
  • Kick as hard as you can to propel yourself forward.
  • Grab onto the ice.
    Claw with your fingernails. If you have anything sharp, like keys, use them for traction.
  • Once you get out, slide or roll for several feet to safer ice.
  • If you can’t get out completely, keep as much of your body as possible out of the water.

How to Survive in Cold Water

  1. Attempt to stay calm.
    Easier said than done, but important. Maybe start trying to recall this blog post. He said stay calm.
  2. Keep your head out of the water.
    Pretty obvious. Still …
  3. Get your breathing under control.
    You’ve done well if you accomplish this within about a minute.
  4. Get as much of your body as possible out of the water.
    You have about ten minutes before the muscle weakness sets in. If there’s a floating object, get as much of your body as you can on top of it. See the insert on how to get out of a hole in the ice. If you’re able to get part of your body out of the water, wring out your gloves, sleeves, etc.
  5. Keep your clothes on, coat and all. If you have to tread water or have no other choice than to swim, lose the shoes.

How to Save Someone Else in Cold Water

  1. Don’t just jump in.
    Unless you’re trained, that’s almost always a bad idea.
  2. Talk to the person, calmly. Tell them what you’re going to do.
  3. Find a long stick or something that will reach the person without you having to get on the thin ice.
  4. If you have a rope, tie a loop, throw it to the person, and tell him or her to loop it under the arms.
  5. If you go into the water, you must tie a rope under your arms, around your chest, and have someone strong enough there to pull you out.
  6. Warm and resuscitate. Remember the dive reflex (next post).