How to stay safe in cold water conditions

Swimming in cold water without appropriate safety equipment and precautions or sudden falls into cold water can be fatal. Cold water can cause cold water shock and hypothermia, and can impact people of all ages and fitness, including even the most capable swimmers. These conditions can adversely affect the body's ability to function properly, thereby increasing the risk of drowning.

Although everyone might presume that the waters in and around Australia are warm year round, there are many places where the water remains cold for many months of the year.

While not everyone continues to swim in winter, other aquatic activities such as boating, kayaking and fishing are popular year round. When recreating in and around water, drowning remains a risk, even when a person has no intention of entering the water.

Accidental falls into water is a leading cause of drowning in Australia, accounting for an average of 52 drowning deaths each year. Slippery banks, poor weather conditions and alcohol are all factors which can contribute to falls into water.

Cold water shock

Cold water shock can occur when your body undergoes sudden immersion in cold water that is less than 15°C. It causes uncontrollable breathing and increases the work of the heart, which can lead to hypothermia and drowning.

As your heart beats faster, blood vessels in your skin rapidly begin to close making it difficult for blood to flow.

Signs of cold water shock include:

  • Rapid cooling of skin, pale skin
  • Rapid and uncontrolled breathing patterns, hyperventilation
  • Panic

Download Royal Life Saving's factsheet on cold water shock and how to stay safe

Cold water safety


Hypothermia is dangerous and occurs when core body temperature falls below 35°C for 30 minutes or more. It may follow cold water shock after sudden immersion in cold water.

Signs of hypothermia include:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Shivering stops
  • Body rigidity and fatigue

Download Royal Life Saving's factsheet on hypothermia and how to stay safe

Cold water safety

Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP)

In the case of an accidental fall into water, it is important to try to conserve as much of your energy as possible. This can be done by adopting the HELP technique:

  • Keep your head out of the water
  • Keep your clothes on to help retain heat
  • Bring your knees to the chest
  • Press both your arms against your sides
  • Keep movement to a minimum and stay calm
  • Huddle with others, if possible
Cold water huddle HELP position