Cold water therapy has some amazing health benefits but it can also be potentially dangerous. Here's what you need to know to enjoy cold water therapy safely.
What is cold water therapy?
Cold water therapy, also know as cold hydrotherapy and cold water immersion, involves exposing the body to the temperatures of cold water.
From wild swimming to ice baths, there are many types of cold water therapy - but the underlying principle is that the body is immersed in water with a temperature of 15C (58F) or less for a period of time.
This has been shown to have a number of physiological effects on the body which can lead to health benefits when enjoyed regularly. Interestingly, cold water therapy has also been found to have a number of benefits for mental wellbeing too.
Types of cold water therapy
The word therapy may seem quite formal and intense, but cold water therapy simply means any activity which involves immersing the body in cold water for periods of time. Some of the most popular of these are summarised below.
Cold shower - Opting for a cold shower instead of hot, or starting out hot and working your way down to a colder shower
Wild swimming - Swimming in the outdoors (here in the UK at least!) almost guarantees cold water temperatures, swimming in lakes and the sea are popular ways to enjoy cold water immersion and stay active
Ice bath - Ice baths are one of the cooler options with temperatures of just 10-15C - they're a favourite for post-workout recovery
- Cold water immersion tubs - Just like a regular bathtub, cold water tubs make enjoying cold water therapy at home easy and convenient
Benefits of cold water therapy
Cold water therapy has been shown to have a number of beneficial effects on the body and mind. When enjoyed regularly and over time, cold water immersion can have many health benefits. Here are just a few.
Improves athletic and post-workout recovery - Promotes muscle repair and aids recovery by reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) - which can also help to reduce the risk of injury
Boosts the immune system - Research has shown that cold water therapy can accelerate immune response as well as reduce inflammation in the body
May help with weight loss - Some studies have found that cold water immersion can speed up the body's metabolic rate, aiding in weight loss
Could improve symptoms of depression - Cold water therapy could be a useful holistic approach to treating mood disorders such as depression
- Increased energy - Exposing the body to cold water increases circulation and blood flow to the brain, helping to increase energy and improve mental clarity
You can learn more about the benefits of cold water therapy in our article below.
Potential dangers of cold water therapy
There's no denying that cold water therapy could be an amazing addition to your healthy lifestyle, but it is important to consider the risks and potential dangers before getting started.
Here are some of the main dangers of cold water therapy.
Cardiac Stress - Cold water exposure effects our heart rate, circulation and blood pressure - so has the potential to create cardiac stress. This is usually mild and may cause beneficial physiological changes in most people - such as improved circulation. However, for those with a heart condition it could be dangerous and even fatal.
Cold Water Shock - Cold water shock can happen when the body is plunged quickly into cold water, having been at a usual temperature right beforehand. Cold water drains heat from the body four times faster than cold air. This shock can cause rapid breathing and an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. This is usually easily overcome in ice water baths or cold showers, but can seriously affect our ability to swim in open water.
Cold Incapacitation - This happens when you get too cold over time and is a particular concern when swimming outdoors. Your body may be able to overcome cold shock at first, adjusting to the temperature and moving to keep warm - but this can soon wear off and swimming becomes harder and slower. With prolonged exposure to the cold, blood will rush to the core to protect the major organs - making it harder to use your brain and limbs - needless to say creating a very immediate risk of drowning.
Asthma Attacks - If you have asthma you should always be cautious before partaking in any cold water therapy. Cold water immersion can affect our breathing rate and increase the risk of an asthma attack. Even if you have mild asthma, always be sure to take precautions and pack an inhaler if you have one.
Cramp - Cold water immersion causes muscles to contract and in turn increases the risk of cramp. Again, this is a particular concern for wild and open swimming - as muscle cramps can restrict the movement needed to stay afloat.
Afterdrop - Afterdrop is the sensation of feeling colder even after you get out of cold water. This phenomenon happens as blood which has rushed to the core to protect vital organs takes time to recirculate. As a result, a lack of blood in our extremities and skin can cause us to feel cold long after leaving the cold water environment. Afterdrop can be recognised by vigorous shaking, feeling dizzy or faint and feeling generally unwell. It is important to warm up again after cold water therapy to avoid afterdrop and its consequences.
Cold Water Urticaria - This is a skin reaction which happens within a few minutes of skin being exposed to cold water. Hives (large, red and itchy welts) appear on the skin and only worsen as the skin warms up again - persisting for around 2 hours. Cold urticaria is most common in younger adults and can produce mild or severe reactions - from discomfort and itchiness to swelling and even anaphylaxis.
- Hypothermia - Hypothermia can happen as a result of cold shock, cold incapacitation and prolonged exposure to cold temperatures in general. It can take a while for true hypothermia to set in, but when it does it can be potentially fatal. Hypothermia happens when the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, resulting in a dangerously low body temperature. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and you should always call 999 (or your local medical emergency phone number) if you suspect you or another person may be suffering with it.
Tragically, there have been a number of deaths and near fatalities in open water and cold water swimming events. So, it is super important to make sure that cold water therapy is safe for you before you begin - particularly in open water.
Safety tips for enjoying cold water therapy
The good news is that most of the risks of cold water therapy are easily prevented, so that the benefits of cold water therapy can be safely enjoyed.
In fact, most of the risks can be greatly reduced by opting for a cold shower, ice bath or cold water tub instead of wild swimming.
Having said that, swimming in open water can also be safe if careful measures are made. Wild swimming also has its own benefits above other cold water therapy methods, such as reconnecting with nature and engaging our innate primal instincts.
Here are our top tips for staying safe when using cold water therapy.
- Talk to your GP or a professional before starting
It's always best to discuss cold water therapy with your GP, a healthcare professional or cold water expert before starting your first session.
This is especially so if you plan on practising cold water therapy at home or unattended.
Of course, if you have any health conditions then we would always recommend discussing any lifestyle changes with your doctor before getting started.
- Keep immersions short
The benefits of cold water therapy can be enjoyed with immersions as short as 5 minutes. So, there's no need to immerse the body in cold water for long periods of time.
Even just a brisk cold shower can help to unlock the benefits of cold water therapy, exposing your body for much longer periods of time increases the risks involved and is best avoided.
- Be sure to warm up after each immersion
Once you have enjoyed your ice bath, wild swim or cold shower - be sure to warm up again and bring your body back to its usual temperature.
Get dried thoroughly, redress into dry clothing and consider wearing a hat, scarf and gloves until you warm up. Then enjoy a nice hot drink such as a bulletproof coffee or a cup of herbal tea to warm your core.
- Always have a buddy with you
The risks with cold water therapy are always there, so it is best practice to avoid going it alone and always have a buddy or spectator. That way if something does go wrong, your buddy can get help.
- Consider a life jacket or flotation device if wild swimming
The dangers of cold water therapy are significantly increased for those who are wild swimming. Simply not being able to remove yourself from the cold water quickly is a big enough risk to take extra precautions.
If open water swimming is your preferred method of cold water therapy, as it is for many, consider wearing a life jacket or taking a portable flotation device with you - which can be inflated in case of an emergency.
There are so many amazing benefits to be enjoyed from cold water therapy, so it is always worth understanding the risks and dangers so that you can enjoy cold water immersion safely. By following these basic safety tips and knowing how to recognise danger when it happens, you can enjoy a happy, healthy and safe cold water session.
All information provided on our website and within our articles is simply information, opinion, anecdotal thoughts and experiences to provide you with the tools to thrive.
It is not intended to treat or diagnose symptoms and is definitely not intended to be misconstrued for medical advice. We always advise you seek the advice of a trained professional when implementing any changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits.
We do however recommend seeking the services of a trained professional who questions the conventional wisdom to enable you to become the best version of yourself.