Cold water shock dangers need including in lessons, councils urge

"Cold water shock, which can affect breathing and movement - even among strong and confident swimmers - is one of the biggest causes of drowning. It can take hold when people enter or jump into cold seas, rivers, canals and lakes where temperatures can be as low as 15C in the summer – half that of typical swimming pools heated to 30C."


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Children need to be taught about the dangers of cold water shock as new figures show the number of young people drowning accidentally in the UK rose by almost a quarter last year, council leaders urged today.

To mark Drowning Prevention Week, the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England and Wales, has issued a water safety warning ahead of rising temperatures forecast next week when casual swimmers may be tempted to take a dip in open water.

Cold water shock, which can affect breathing and movement - even among strong and confident swimmers - is one of the biggest causes of drowning. It can take hold when people enter or jump into cold seas, rivers, canals and lakes where temperatures can be as low as 15C in the summer – half that of typical swimming pools heated to 30C.

Although there has been an overall reduction in numbers of accidental drownings over the past three years, latest figures from the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF) show that the number of people aged 19 and under who drowned accidentally in the UK increased by 24 per cent, from 25 in 2017 to 31 in 2018. Accidental drownings for all age groups in the combined months of June, July and August rose by 24 per cent, from 83 to 103, over the same period.

The LGA is calling for the dangers of cold water shock to be taught in swimming lessons. If schools don’t arrange swimming lessons for their pupils, they should receive the safety advice as part of personal, social, health and economic (PHSE) lessons, it says.

The NWSF figures showed that 263 people died from accidental drownings in the UK in 2018, a slight increase on the 255 drownings in 2017.

Many people drowned despite having no intention of entering the water. The number of people who drowned last year while walking or running (93) is nearly double those who drowned while swimming (34) or having jumped or dived into open water (17) combined.

Anyone who falls into water can increase their chances of survival by fighting their instinct to swim and float instead for a minute or two, which will help them to regain control of their breathing while the effects of cold water shock pass, before trying to swim for safety or calling for help.

As well as cold water shock, the LGA says everyone needs to be more aware of other water risks, including tides and currents, and hidden dangers such as objects beneath the surface and unstable ground on beaches, cliffs, river banks and towpaths.

Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:

“Many people drown after having had no intention of going into particularly deep water or after entering the water on the spur of the moment, so the need for education is clear if water-related deaths are to be reduced.

“A 50-metre swimming badge awarded in a calm, heated swimming pool doesn’t mean someone will survive if they deliberately or accidentally enter a cold canal or a fast flowing river. This is because cold water shock severely limits everyone’s ability to swim and rescue themselves, irrespective of the strength of the swimmer.

“Teaching children about the dangers of cold water shock while they learn to swim or as part of PSHE lessons would be a simple way to improve water safety across the country and could make the vital difference in helping to save lives and avoid the tragic aftermath for families.”

Anyone who spots someone in danger in open water is advised not to enter the water to rescue them, but to call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.

Notes to editors

  1. Councils in England face an overall funding gap of £8 billion by 2025. The LGA’s #CouncilsCan campaign aims to influence the forthcoming Spending Review and highlight the growing risk to vital local services if the Government does not take action to secure the financial sustainability of councils. Visit our campaign page for more information.
  2. Facts and safety advice on cold water shock
  3. National Water Safety Forum Water Incident Database figures for 2018 and previous years.

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