Float and relax: How our drowning prevention research is saving lives
Each day, more than 1,000 lives are lost by drowning – but that number doesn’t include unrecorded drownings in low and middle-income countries. The real figure could be as high as 1.2 million deaths per year, with 25% of those deaths being children.
But now, thanks to research by the University’s Professor of Human and Applied Physiology, Professor Mike Tipton MBE, countless lives could be saved each year.
Since the Titanic sank in 1912, hypothermia had been viewed as the main danger facing anyone who finds themselves in cold water.
But Professor Tipton’s research in our Extreme Environments Laboratory has revealed the main problem is actually cold shock – which peaks in water temperatures between 10-15⁰C. The average temperature of UK and Irish waters is 12⁰C.
His research also revealed a startling method to improve your chances of survival: simply turn on your back, float and relax.
Mike says: “When you fall into cold water, it quickly cools your skin. This reduces skin blood flow, and increases your heart rate, blood pressure and the strain placed on your heart.
“Cold water tends to make you thrash around and try to swim hard, panicking and fighting the water. That's the ‘fight or flight’ response – which works on land but not in water.
“Your first instinct is to get out – to swim to safety. But you need to fight this instinct until the cold shock passes, usually within 60–90 seconds. Then float on your back until you’re able to catch your breath."
If you take a big breath in, that’s around three litres and the lethal dose of salt water for drowning is about a litre and half. Being under the water or having a big wave splash into your face can be enough to start the drowning process.
Even though it’s the right thing to do, staying still in cold water can understandably feel counterintuitive. During his research, Mike also found that many people incorrectly believe they're unable to float, despite our bodies being naturally buoyant.
Mike and his team conducted trials with 85 people of different ages, shapes, sizes, genders and swimming abilities. These revealed that everyone truly can float, either on their own or with gentle sculling.
That knowledge is especially important if you can't swim but instinctively try to anyway. Doing so can worsen your position by allowing air – which could help you float – to escape from your clothing.
Mike’s research also found that the act of lying back is particularly important. If you’re upright in the water, you get hydrostatic squeeze, which returns blood upwards to your heart and creates even more strain. .
Mike says: "Clothing can restrict you if you're trying to swim and it’s one of the reasons for not swimming, but if you stay still in clothing, it traps air and helps you stay above the surface.
“As for being horizontal: it’s a much less stressful position to be in. You’ve simply got to have the confidence to do nothing and to fight that instinct to thrash about and swim.”
One of the tangible results of Mike’s work is Float to Live, a campaign by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution that’s been influenced and informed by Mike’s research.
With a focus on educating people about what to do once they're in the water, Float to Live aims to get you over that period where you’ve lost control of your breathing. If you can float until you get your breathing under control, you're in a much stronger position to survive.
It’s already working, too: coastal drownings fell by 30 per cent in 2017 and many other organisations are now spreading similar messages about water safety.
And while Mike is motivated by both his physical proximity to the sea in Portsmouth and “the possibility of reducing the global burden of drowning”, he’s keen to emphasise that safety starts on dry land.
He says: “If you’re planning to go into the water, choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags – the area most closely monitored by the lifeguards.
“And if you see someone else in danger in the water, don’t try to rescue them: call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard.”
Explore our research themes
Find out about the research work we're doing across our 5 research themes – which deal with the most-pressing issues facing society and the planet.