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Winter swimming: Staying safe during COVID-19

8 December 2020
Category: EarPro Blog

Winter swimming – and for some even ice swimming – is surprisingly popular with a growing group of swim fans. However, the threat of a COVID-19 infection keeps many swimmers from taking a dip in lakes and open-air pools as even swimming in seas is rumoured to be risky. It’s of course helpful to avoid the ‘four C’s’ — closed spaces, crowded places, any close-contact settings and also continuous exposure – in any situation. But, due to rampant misinformation many are unsure if swimming in winter during the coronavirus pandemic can indeed be safe.

That’s why we curated the below, helpful considerations:

What are the health benefits of winter swimming?

One of the reasons why winter swimming is gaining popularity across the globe are the significant health benefits attached to it. Some of the main benefits are that cold water can boost your immune system, that it will help improve your circulation and will also help to reduce stress. To top it off, winter swimming may also be helpful fighting a range of mental health problems such as depression.

What are the health risks of winter swimming?

Given these impressive benefits, it’s important to be also aware of the risks. So, before jumping into the cold water, especially open water such as rivers or lakes, please consider these health risks:

  • Hypothermia refers to a drop in core body temperature to below 35C. Typically, it takes the human body twice as long to warm back up as it does to cool down. When your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs can’t work normally. Left untreated, hypothermia can lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and even  to death;
  • Cold water shock is your body’s short-term involuntary response to being immersed in cold water. This shock causes the blood vessels in the skin to close and your heart to work harder. It also produces the ‘gasp’ response, as well as rapid breathing. Typically, a cold water shock lasts for about 1 to 2 minutes;
  • Chilblains are small, itchy swellings on your extremities after being out in cold weather. You won’t get chilblains from swimming in icy temperatures but may appear if you warm up again too quickly. These little red bumps on your skin are not usually serious but can be uncomfortable.

Please note this is not a full list of risks – download this PDF from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health for more information.

How can I stay safe when swimming in winter?

Our friends at Netdoctor put together these helpful safety precautions and following these tips will help you make safe choices:

  • Think before you go into the water – Always do your research first, check entry and exit points and know about tides, currents and other factors;
  • Wear a wetsuit – A wetsuit can help to keep you safe and also more comfortable – especially in water below 5C. But, remember that wetsuits do not offer a full protection against hypothermia;
  • Never swim under the influence – We hope this one is obvious and needs no explanation;
  • Be social – Always swim with others or, at the very least, let others know where and when you’re going for a swim;
  • Always enter the water slowly – Entering the water slowly will help protect you against the cold water shock;
  • Know your limits – Knowing one’s limits is key to staying safe when swimming in cold water. Under no circumstance you should stay in longer than you are comfortable;
  • Avoid crowds and maintain at least a 1.5 metre distance from others, even when you are swimming, says the Word Health Organisation (WHO). Wear a mask when you’re not in the water and you can’t stay distant. Clean your hands frequently, avoid touching surfaces, cover a cough or sneeze with a tissue or bent elbow and stay home if you’re unwell.

Here are some more helpful tips from Outdoor Swimmer who also put together this great post on ‘Winter swimming – all your questions answered‘:

Could COVID-19 be spread in an open-air swimming pool?

Vincenzo Romano Spica, Professor of Hygiene at the University of Rome (Italy) says that ‘at the moment, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of swimming pools; and proper operation, maintenance and disinfection should remove or inactivate the virus causing COVID-19. However, SARS-CoV-2 could be present in saliva or other biological fluids that could contaminate the water even just in traces, protecting the virus with organic material. Therefore, chlorination and more generally water disinfection are especially important.’

Does chlorine kill coronavirus in open-air swimming pools?

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the chlorine in the water should inactivate coronavirus and ‘based on what we know about chlorine and other viruses, it is likely safe to be swimming in a properly maintained pool, provided you continue to observe rules of social distancing and proper hand hygiene‘, says Dr. Cicogna (MD).

But, in the absence of epidemiological evidence, it is necessary to be cautious – to lower your risk of coronavirus while at a public pool, please…:

  • …stay at least 1.5 metres away from people (in or out of the water);
  • …wash your hands with soap and water or sanitise your hands often;
  • …avoid touching your face;
  • …wear a face mask when you’re out of the water;
  • …don’t wear a face covering in the water as they’re hard to breathe through when wet.

Could COVID-19 be spread in open water?

As far as we know, there are no known cases of people getting infected while swimming in open water. But, similar viruses have shown to be capable of living in environments such as lakes or rivers. This could mean that these viruses can be infectious at least for a little while. The associated infection risk will be low if it is not crowded and also if the body of water is large – the dilution effect will produce a very low viral density.

Should I wear a mask while winter or ice swimming?

No, not while being in water as you could end up with trouble breathing if the mask gets wet and heavy. But, you should wear a mask right after leaving the water and at all times adhere to the recommended guidelines such as keeping your distance, washing your hands often, covering your coughs and disinfecting chairs or benches you sit on. And, lastly, don’t share gear with others like your diving hat, swimming gloves or your EarPro bottle.

Where can I get more info about winter & ice swimming?

Just visit the EarPro YouTube channel where we’ve compiled a list of videos to get you started.

And, finally, can you recommend any locations for winter swimming?

Here are some of the best locations across the globe for a truly fascinating winter swimming experience – enjoy and let us know of your experiences!!

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Title photo by Julius Jansson via Unsplash.