Surviving in Freezing Water: How long you can stay submerged and still live

One of the worst situations that you can get into is falling into ice-cold water with no way to get out, get dry or get to warmth!

The length of time that you can survive in cold water is going to depend on the temperature of the water. Use the table below to see how long you can survive:

Water Temp (°F) Water Temp (°C) Time Before Exhaustion or Unconsciousness Time Before Death
32.5° 0.3° < 15 minutes 45 minutes
32.5–40° 0.3–4.4° 15 – 30 minutes 30 – 90 minutes
40–50° 3.3–10° 30 – 60 minutes 1 – 3 hours
50–60° 10–15.6° 1 – 2 hours 1 – 6 hours
60–70° 15.6–21.1° 2 – 7 hours 2 – 40 hours
70–80° 21.1–26.7° 3 – 12 hours 3 hours – indefinite
> 80° > 26.7° Indefinite Indefinite

What Happens to Your Body When You Fall Into Cold Water

As soon as you fall into cold water, your body begins to experience a cold shock response. This can happen whenever we’re suddenly forced into the cold but it’s especially bad when you fall into the water!

Cold shock causes immediate involuntary inhalation. If your head is under the water when this happens, it can cause immediate drowning. This is actually one of the leading causes of aminal deaths in cold water.

Next, the blood vessels in your arms and legs constrict to try to help keep your core body temp up. If you have any kind of heart disease, this can result in a heart attack.

Cold water can also cause involuntary hyperventilation which can also cause you to accidentally breathe in water and drown.

If you can survive the first minute that you’re in the water, most people can survive in freezing water for about 30 minutes. However, you need to get moving if you’re going to have a chance of self recovering. Most people will lose the use of their arms and legs within 10 minutes as the body cut off blood flow to muscles in the extremities.

Can You Resist Cold Shock

Cold shock is an interesting reaction from the human body. Unlike a lot of other involuntary reactions that our body goes through, you can actually train yourself to not be affected by it in the same way as an untrained person.

Cold water swimmers condition their bodies to become used to the cold. This allows them to do the following:

  • Become completely immersed in cold water without experiencing mental panic or involuntary inhalation.
  • Resist involuntary shivering.
  • Raise their metabolism to help resist the cold.
  • Delay the shutdown of their arms and legs.

What Should You Do if You Fall Into Cold Water

Try not to panic! Get control of your breathing as fast as possible. Hold onto something to keep your head above water if you can.

Time is important! You’re going to begin to lose dexterity and eventually use of your arms and legs. Do the most important things first.

Put on a floatation device. If you fell off a boat, look around for a floatation device in the water. Only use articles of clothing as a last resort. The water trapped between your clothes will act as a layer of insulation.

Get out of the water! Try to get out of the water as fast as you can. Either get on land, climb back onto the boat, get back on the ice or climb onto something floating in the water.

If you can’t get completely out of the water, then get as much of your body out of the water as possible.

Try to keep your body heat! If you can’t get out of the water, your next objective is to stop as much loss of body heat as possible. Stay motionless and protect your arms and legs. Keep your head and neck out of the water!

Stay as motionless as possible, protecting the high heat loss areas of your body, and keep your head and neck out of the water.

Keep your arms and legs close to your body. If you have a flotation device on, you can pull your legs up toward your chest. If there are other people with you, huddle together to try to conserve body heat.

If you have to swim…do it as a last resort. Keep your arms at your sides, float on your back, keep your thighs together and kick with the just lower part of your legs. This will protect the armpits, groin, and ribcage from losing heat as fast.

Be ready to signal to rescuers.

How to Treat Cold Water Immersion Victims

Get the person out of the water as soon as possible. Try to keep them in a horizontal position.

Prevent further loss of body heat.

Be ready to attempt CPR and treat the victim to the best of your ability.

Get them to qualified medical help as soon as possible.

How Cold Does Water Have to be to Kill You?

Water doesn’t have to be all that cold to kill you. If you look at the chart above you can see that death can occur in water around 70 degrees.

That seems like it’s unlikely, and it probably is. At 70 degrees, it’s going to take a while for your body to lose enough heat to be fatal, but it’s still possible.

The big risk comes from when you initially hit the water. As soon as the cold shock reaction begins, you’re at risk of inhaling water and drowning.

Is it Possible for Cold Water to Stop Your Heart?

One thing that some people believe is that cold water can stop your heart. The cold water itself doesn’t really stop your heart, but it’s possible that your body’s cold shock response could cause a heart attack.

As you start going into cold shock, your blood vessels in your arms and legs contract right away. This makes it harder for the heart to pump blood through them and raises your blood pressure.

The raising of your blood pressure can be enough to cause cardiac arrest if you already have a weakened heart.

What you Should Understand About Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a serious condition that needs to be treated immediately. It’s one of the most likely causes of death for anyone in a survival situation.

Signs that hypothermia is setting in:

  • Shivering uncontrollably
  • Poor coordination
  • Mental sluggishness
  • Slurring speech
  • Confusion
  • Irrational behavior
  • Incoherence

Severe hypothermia can be spotted by icy cold skin, severe lethargy, loss of consciousness and they may even appear dead. Because a victim may appear dead, you should always try CPR if you can.

How to treat hypothermia:

  • Remove any wet clothing
  • Protect the victim from the wind
  • Prevent further loss of body heat
  • Keep the victim as still as possible to allow the cold blood in the extremities to gradually reenter the torso
  • Heat the victim if you can by getting them to shelter
  • Exhale into the victims face as they inhale
  • Give them warm non-alcoholic beverages or soups
  • Place hot water bottles or compresses in the armpits, groin, and against the torso
  • Be on the lookout for a further drop in core temp when the cold blood in the victim’s extremities returns to the body
  • Seek medical attention as soon as possible

Related Questions

Can jumping into cold water kill you? Jumping into cold water can kill you by inducing cold shock. As you first hit the water you will involuntarily inhale. This can cause you to inhale water and drown. It can also cause cardiac arrest by immediately spiking your blood pressure.

How long does it take for a person to drown to death? A person can drown to death in three to four minutes. This can be extended depending on how long they are able to struggle at the surface of the water.


Falling into icy water is one of the most dangerous situations you can find yourself in! You need to act fast to get yourself out before you start losing strength and mobility in your arms and legs.

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