How to Survive Falling into Freezing Cold Water?

The shock of falling into freezing cold water can be life-threatening. In just minutes, hypothermia can set in and lead to cardiac arrest. Time is ticking.

You’ve seen the movies. You’ve seen what happens when the main character falls into freezing water. Did you know that freezing water can kill you in minutes? Coldwater can be such a shock to the system that you can drown in minutes, even if you are an experienced swimmer. 

Even if you survive the first minutes, after about 10 minutes, your body starts going numb as you begin to lose control of your muscles. After that, your chances of survival fall dramatically.

So what should you do if you find yourself in icy cold water?

How to Survive a Fall in Cold Water?

Here are some steps you can take if you accidentally fall into some cold water:

1. Stay calm.

Staying calm will be a lot harder than it seems. Your body will go into shock as you start to feel dizzy and disoriented. You will likely flail and gasp for breath, only making the situation worse. Panic comes as a result of cold shock and only makes it harder to think, increasing the chances of making a mistake.

2. Keep your head out of the water.

Keeping your head out of the water will help you stay calm and keep your body temperature up. You want to avoid any water getting into your mouth; taking water in will get you gasping for air, leading to a vicious cycle.

Keep as much of your body out of the water as possible. If something is floating nearby, get on top of it or as much of your body as possible.

3. Breathe slowly or try to hold your breath

Holding your breath will be hard as the cold shock will make your lungs contract making conscious breathing difficult. Your body will be responding instinctually. Cold water immersion creates an initial involuntary reflex that will make you gasp for breath, referred to as cold water gasp reflex, that will make you want to open your mouth and take in air. 

One way to help get over the cold-water gasp reflex is by holding your breath. You can do this by trying to hold for short bursts. However, the effects of the gasp reflex will slowly fade.

Initially, the instinct of wanting to breathe in quickly will come which can lead to hyperventilation if it gets out of hand.

If you feel you are hyperventilating, and can not hold your breath, try taking in deep breaths. This can help you relax. Cold shock will likely subside after 60-90 seconds.

4. Try to Swim. If not, Float.

After you have gained your composure, try and get out of the water. Look around to see where you fell in, and if it is possible, swim in the direction of the shore. If you are a long way from shore, then float and wait to be rescued.

How long can someone survive in cold water?

How long can someone survive in cold water?
Photo reference:

You have 10 minutes

If you fall into cold water, you have less than 10 minutes before you lose the ability to move your hands, arms, and legs. Any movement in cold water, on the other hand, will deplete your body of heat 25-30 times faster than air.

The Lifesaving Society’s study found that 43% of all people who drowned in cold water were only 2 meters (6.6 feet) from safety, according to their research study, while another 66% were approximately 15 meters (49.2 feet) from safety.

1-10-1 rule

Dr. Gordon Giesbriecht coined the term the “1-10-1 rule” which helps to conceptualize cold-water immersion and the time it takes before you are in serious trouble.

He states that you have 1 minute to get your breathing under control, 10 minutes to try and get yourself out of the water (by yourself before your body goes numb), and 1 hour before you lose consciousness and succumb to hypothermia.

freezing water
Water that is just above freezing at 32.5 degrees and your chance of surviving drastically decreases

What happens when I fall into cold water?

  1. After the first 10-15 minutes, you lose control of your muscles.
  2. They’re weak and stiff, and you will not be able to hold onto anything like a rope or stick to help pull you out. You will also have trouble swimming, so you need to start swimming before then if you are near shore.
  3. As the body temp drops, and is between 89.6-82.4 degrees, your shivering stops and your consciousness becomes impaired. Hypothermia will begin to set at about 30 mins in as the core temperature drops to below 89.9 degrees Fahrenheit, but can even set in the body in a few minutes if the water temperature is just above freezing 32.5 F.
  4. If you haven’t drowned by now, you will begin going through the stages of hypothermia.

Cold-Water Immersion

Coldwater immersion is when the body is suddenly exposed to cold water, typically 70 degrees Fahrenheit or below, which doesn’t seem very cold but it’s cold enough. The body goes through a physiological response involuntarily, often leading to mental impairment.

The initial response is a gasp for breath as the lungs contract and the blood vessels in the extremities constrict shifting blood to your vital organs.

cold water gasp

Coldwater Gasp

Coldwater gasp is a reflex or an automatic response from an immersion of cold water above the head. As you can see photos like the one below of people gasping for breath as they hit icy cold water.

However, this is where it can be initially dangerous because you can drown if you inhale as little as 5 ounces of water. Drowning is a combination of both cardiac arrest and suffocation.

Although your heart will still continue to beat as you begin to drown, as water pours into your lungs (due to you gasping for breath), you do not get enough oxygen into your body as fluid starts to fill your lungs. From here, your brain begins to shut down after 4-5 minutes.

Mammalian dive reflex

All mammals experience what is called a mammalian dive reflex in water that is below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The body tries to conserve energy and heat by shutting down blood flow to the extremities and non-essential organs in response to cold immersion.

When your head submerges in cold water, your body responds by:

  1. Slowing your heart rate in a process that is called Bradycardia
  2. Contraction of your blood vessels, known as Peripheral Vasoconstriction
  3. Shifting blood from your extremities to your vital organs, especially the lungs, to keep them from collapsing
  4. Increasing the production of red blood cells from the spleen

All of these responses work to conserve heat and keep your vital organs functioning properly.

Life-saving postures if you fall into freezing cold water

It is always recommended to wear a proper personal floatation device (PFD) when in or around the water.

proper personal floatation device (PFD
Wear a proper personal floatation device (PFD) especially in cold water

A PFD will allow you to remain above water when cold shock occurs, allowing the head and mouth to remain above the surface so that you can get air into your lungs.

The HELP Position

The Heat Escape Lessening Position (HELP) or Help position is a fetal position that will help preserve heat and help you survive a cold water emergency situation.

This position involves bringing your knees towards your face and grasping your arms around your lower legs, and holding yourself into a floating ball.

This helps increase your vital core temperature. You decrease the amount of heat loss by reducing the surface area of your body that is exposed to the water.

H.E.L.P & HUDDLE cold Water saving Position
H.E.L.P & HUDDLE Water Position

The Huddle Position

If you are with another person, you can get into the huddle position where you are upright in the water, circling your arms with the shoulders of others around you and holding on as close together as you can.

The Carpet Formation

Another position you can do if you are with other survivors is where you allow the body’s core to float at the surface and link arms with those on either side, interlocking legs with those across from them to share as much body heat as possible.

Grab the feet from the person in front of you and put their feet on your chest.

Cold water survival tips

Try and prevent anything like this from happening in the first place. Do that by following a few things like:

  1. Wearing proper clothing
  2. Avoiding alcohol and drugs
  3. Learning to swim
  4. Knowing your limitations
  5. Heeding weather warnings and avoiding dangerous areas during inclement weather
saving someone who has fallen in freezing water
Photo Reference

Things you can do to save someone who has fallen into icy cold water

Talk to the person in the water and try and get them to calm. Encourage the person to stay afloat and not to give up by letting them know you’re there trying to help.

1. Reach out to the person

Try and reach out to the person with a long stick or pole. You can also use ladders, poles or anything stable enough to reach the person.

2. Throw out something

If you can’t reach the victim, throw out a line of rope, tie a large loop in it and throw it out to the person. Tell them to put it under their arms and hold on.

3. Row, or float, out to the victim.

This one is not suitable for all situations and will depend on the situation and environment. Although everyone wants to help, there is no use in getting a second person in trouble by trying to help the first.

If it is safe eoungh, you can try and either float out to other person using a flotation device. If you are rescuing a person from a hole in the ice, be careful when you approach and do so on your stomach rather than walking upright so as to spread the weight around.

Things not to do

1. Do not jump in to try and save someone, this is usually not a good idea as it will also put you in danger.

2. Don’t try and take off your clothes when in the water.

Clothes can actually keep you warm when in the water (when you’re on land, that’s another matter) and will help you float as it has trapped air in the fabric.

3. Do not give a hypothermic person alcohol.

Alcohol dilates the veins and makes the body lose heat rapidly

4. Do not heat the arms and legs.

What this does is that this forces cold blood from the arms and legs toward the heart which can lower core body temperature

5. Do Not massage the victim or give the victim a hot bath.

Cardiac arrest is a frequent result of hypothermia, and moving the victim roughly can be a catalyst for this condition.

How to treat someone who has fallen in cold water?

Get them warm, take off their wet clothes and slowly warm them up with dry blankets. Remember not to warm to quickly as you do not know if they have hypothermia or not and can be dangerous.

Any victim pulled from cold water should be treated for hypothermia.

Seek the help of a trained medical professional or get that person to a medical facility immediately.

Symptoms of hypothermia may include:

  • shivering,
  • confusion,
  • blue skin,
  • weak pulse,
  • trouble breathing

To treat for hyperthermia

  1. Be gentle – be careful with the person’s body as they are in a delicate condition
  2. Move the victim to a warm place, but do not directly place heat on the body
  3. Remove wet clothes though use a minimum amount of body movement
  4. Give the person dry clothes and cover them with a blanket
  5. Give the person warm (not hot) liquids.


Falling into cold water can be a traumatic experience, and it is important to know how to survive if you find yourself in that situation.

No one expects to fall into cold water, but it can happen to anyone. Stay safe!

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