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RNLI warns of cold water shock ahead of bank holiday weekend

Photo: RNLI

The RNLI is urging people to fight their instincts to swim - and float instead - if they fall unexpectedly into water.

With temperatures set to soar over the May bank holiday weekend the charity is warning people of the potential dangers of open water.

Sudden immersion in cold water puts people at risk of suffering cold water shock, triggering the instinctive reaction to gasp uncontrollably and swim hard, which can lead to drowning.

Research commissioned by the RNLI shows over half of people in the north of England would follow this potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell into water, with 42% of respondents saying their immediate reaction would be to swim, while 1% said they would panic.

Others said they would do nothing (4%); remove clothing (2%); hold their breath (1%), and 5% said they would not know what to do.

Mike Tipton, Professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth, explains:

We often rely on our instincts but our instinctive response to sudden immersion in cold water – gasping, thrashing and swimming hard – is potentially a killer.

It increases chances of water entering your lungs, increases the strain on your heart, cools the skin further and helps air escape from any clothing, which then reduces buoyancy.

Although it’s counter-intuitive, the best immediate course of action in that situation is to fight your instinct and try to float or rest, just for a short time.

The effects of cold water shock will pass quite quickly, within 60–90 seconds. Floating for this short time will let you regain control of your breathing and your survival chances will greatly increase.

– Mike Tipton, University of Portsmouth
The RNLI are urging people to fight their instincts and to try to float or rest. Credit: RNLI

The charity are expecting good weather to draw hundreds of people to the coast this bank holiday weekend. Darren Lewis, RNLI Lifesaving Delivery Manager in the north, says:

People will be flocking to the coast this weekend if the weather forecast is to be believed, and we want people to have a safe and enjoyable time at the seaside.

For anyone planning to go into the water, the best way to stay safe is to choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags, which is the area most closely monitored by the lifeguards.

If you see someone else in danger in the water, fight your instinct to go in and try to rescue them yourself – instead call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.

– Darren Lewis, RNLI Lifesaving Delivery Manager