Swimming is good for you, but do you know how to play it safe? We have the lowdown.
Swimming is a wonderful way to burn calories and firm up your muscles, but it’s not without risk. It’s easy to think that the dangers of swimming mostly revolve around rough or choppy waters, but there’s a wide range of potential risks associated with swimming—not just in oceans and rivers, but in swimming pools as well.
1. Watch out for dry drowning and secondary drowning
Drowning doesn’t just refer to being submerged in water. Drowning complications may cause problems up to 24 hours after a swim. A phenomenon called “dry drowning” can occur after someone inhales water through the nose or mouth. This triggers a spasm in the airway, causing it to close and stop people from breathing. “Secondary drowning” refers to water getting into your lungs, irritating the lining and causing fluid to build up. If you notice any symptoms (coughing, vomiting, irritability, chest pain, trouble breathing, sleepiness, or loss of energy) after your swim, you should seek medical attention immediately. However, it’s worth knowing that recent research has questioned the science behind dry drowning, with scientists claiming that issues which have been attributed to dry drowning may have been caused by other factors. Either way, you should seek medical attention if you notice any negative effects after a swim.
2. Make sure that the current isn’t too fast
How can you be sure that it’s safe to swim in a river? If it’s higher than your shins, make sure that you’re comfortable with the current. You can test the current by throwing a stick into the water. If you don’t think you’d be able to keep up with the stick, there’s a chance that the current is too strong for you. You should also make sure that there’s no potential dangers downriver, such as waterfalls or whitewater currents. Use this worldwide crowd-sourced wild swim map to find places where other people go swimming. There’s safety in numbers.
3. Prepare for cold water
If you’re used to heated indoor pools, the temperature of rivers and lakes can be a shock to the system. There are, however, plenty of ways that you can prepare for cold water swimming, the most important of which is to acclimatize to the temperature by slowly lowering yourself into the water. Diving into water with a temperature of less than 60°F (15°C) can cause people to experience a cold shock, a physiological response characterized by the gasp reflex and uncontrollable hyperventilation. This can allow water to enter your lungs and—in the worst-case scenario—it can lead to drowning.
After you get out of the water, let yourself warm up slowly. Don’t jump straight into the shower, which can further lower your body temperature. Make sure that you’ve got plenty of warm clothes, as well as something hot to drink waiting for you.
4. Learn to recognize what it looks like when someone’s drowning
Drowning rarely looks as dramatic as we’re led to believe by movies. Outside of very rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically incapable of crying out for help. In fact, people’s response to drowning—called the “instinctive drowning response”—is to extend their arms and press down upon the surface of the water in an attempt to keep their heads above water. Some of the telltale signs that someone may be drowning include:
- Mouth alternately bobbing below and above the water
- Glassy eyes that are unable to focus
- Hair over the eyes or forehead
- Unsuccessful attempts to swim in a particular direction
- Hyperventilation or gasping
5. Be wary of unclean water
Cleanliness is one of the major health hazards of swimming in wild waters. There are a few different conditions that you need to watch out for:
- Weil’s Disease: The risk of Weil’s Disease can be mitigated by avoiding stagnant water and covering your cuts with waterproof dressings.
- Pollution: Farmland runoff, sewage, industrial pollution, and mine pollution can all cause water pollution. If the water looks clear and clean, it’s generally safe to swim in, while cloudy water with an unpleasant smell should probably be avoided.
- Blue-green algae: Causing allergic reactions and skin rashes, blue-green algae is most likely to appear in still water during the summer months. The best way to protect yourself against blue-green algae is simply to avoid bodies of water with algae in them.
- Swimmer’s itch: Although it’s uncomfortable, swimmer’s itch doesn’t tend to last more than a couple of days. It’s caused by parasites that live within freshwater snails, and you can reduce your risk by rinsing yourself off after you exit the water and avoiding swimming in marshy areas.
Swimming safety is important, so the most important thing is to do your research and keep your wits about you before you head out for a swim. As long as you do that, you should be able to avoid any real trouble when you go for a dip.