Have you seen people voluntarily plunging into ice baths and thought they were insane?
Until- I learned the benefits of cold water immersion therapy.
Freezing your butt off in cold water can actually benefit you in so many ways.
But, with everything good, there have to be some risks or exceptions, right?
So let’s get into the risks and benefits of cold plunging, shall we?
What is A Cold Plunge?
First things first, what is a cold plunge?
Well, cold water immersion involves fully submerging yourself in ice-cold water, usually 50-60°F, for short periods.
There are many ways you can cold plunge; here are some examples:
Sessions typically last just 1-15 minutes. That’s usually enough time to get your body’s response to cold temperatures and reap the benefits of cold water therapy.
So, now that we’ve defined cold plunges, what they are, and how you can do them, let’s get into the risks.
Cold Plunge Risks:
So, we always hear about the health benefits of cold therapy, but it is key to be aware of the potential health risks voluntary exposure to cold water may have.
- Hypothermia – There is a risk of hypothermia when full body exposure dramatically lowers core temperature.
- Cardiac issues – The extreme cold spikes heart rate and blood pressure. Those with heart conditions need to be cautious.
- Drowning – You can pass out from hyperventilating, increasing drowning danger for cold water swimmers.
- Allergic reactions – A percentage of people experience potentially life-threatening reactions to cold urticaria.
- Nerve damage – Extended freezing water exposure can reduce circulation leading to numbness and frostbite.
- Skin Sores/Burns
Hypothermia occurs when your body’s temperature drops to a dangerous level – by just 2.5 degrees below normal. In cold-water, you lose body heat incredibly fast.
Experts describe how hypothermia progresses in stages:
- In the first 3 minutes, your skin gets cold from blood vessels constricting.
- After 3-30 minutes, your muscles start shivering as cold reaches deeper tissues.
- Past 30 minutes, deep shivering isn’t enough to replenish lost heat. Your core temperature can then plummet.
Hypothermia is very rare, especially in cold plunging. Unless you are cold-water swimming or accidentally fall overboard, it is a very low chance that you could get hypothermia.
2. Cardiac Issues:
One hypothesized risk of cold plunging is the cardiac stress it may impose on vulnerable individuals. Massimo Ferrigno, Associate Professor of Anesthesia, M.D, at Harvard Medical School, states: “The shock of cold water against the skin triggers a fight-or-flight response. The adrenal glands pump out extra epinephrine (adrenaline) and other stress hormones. They cause blood vessels supplying the skin to narrow. This conserves heat, but it shifts even more blood to the chest, taxing the heart.”
This hypothesized “autonomic conflict” of competing reflexes could potentially confuse the electrical signals regulating heart rhythm, possibly resulting in arrhythmias.
While a hypothetical risk exists, the professor states, ” This usually isn’t a problem in someone with a healthy heart, but it could spell trouble for someone already prone to arrhythmias. “
There are few documented cases of fatal cardiac events explicitly induced by cold water immersion in healthy individuals.
For those with existing cardiovascular conditions like arrhythmias or hypertension, the strain of these competing reflexes may pose a risk that warrants medical guidance. More research is still needed to verify this theorized risk in susceptible populations.
3. Allergic reactions:
One potential risk of cold water immersion is allergic reactions in those with cold urticaria.
What is that??
It is a condition causing the immune system to release histamine in response to cold exposure.
While not common (affecting around 1% of the population) cold urticaria can produce hives, itching, swelling, and in severe cases, anaphylactic reactions with airway constriction and breathing difficulty when exposed to sudden freezing temperatures.
For those few with diagnosed cold allergy disorders, taking an icy plunge could pose a serious threat.
However, most individuals are unlikely to experience severe allergic responses to brief cold water therapy.
Cold water can raise the risk of drowning.
Ok, before you freak out, let me explain.
This is because suddenly plunging into freezing temperatures can trigger an uncontrolled “gasp reflex” – your body gasps and tries to suck in air involuntarily. Unless you are cold water swimming in a lake, it is unlikely to happen (as opposed to Ice Barrels, cold plunge tubs, etc) .
If your head is underwater when this happens, inhaling water into your lungs is easy, causing drowning accidentally. Though rare in ice baths or cold plunges , this reflex is dangerous.
Being drunk or disoriented can also be an obvious cause of drowning. Beginners are also more at risk since they aren’t used to the shocking cold yet. So it’s wise to take precautions.
Having someone watch you, avoiding putting your head fully underwater, and practicing calm breathing can all help prevent drowning accidents. While not common, knowing about the gasp reflex allows you to plunge more safely.
5. Skin Sores:
Prolonged exposure to cold water can also damage skin tissues. When the water temperature is very low, blood vessels constrict.
This reduces blood flow to the skin, depriving it of warmth and nutrients. Initially, this causes numb, waxy, pale skin from “frostnip.”
Prolonged freezing exposure can allow ice crystals to actually form inside the skin – known as frostbite.
At advanced stages, frostbite can cause permanent injury to skin cells and lead to gangrene. But unless you can stay in freezing cold water for three hours and 26 seconds (the record), I wouldn’t be worrying too much. Cold water for a short period of time should not cause negative side effects in individuals with no severe medical history.
While most ice bath sessions are too brief for major damage, those with circulation issues like Raynaud’s syndrome may be more vulnerable. Checking for warning signs of numbness and paying attention to water temperature/duration allows prevention.
Who Should Avoid Cold Water Therapy?
Cold water therapy may not be suitable for certain groups:
- Elderly individuals: more prone to drops in core body temperature
- Those with heart conditions: Hypertension, arrythmia, etc., that could be impacted by cold shock
- People prone to cold urticaria or other allergic reactions
- Novice open-water swimmers at higher risk of drowning
- Individuals with conditions like Raynaud’s Syndrome or nerve damage
- People with respiratory issues: Such as asthma.
- Pregnant women
If you have any medical concerns or conditions, talk to your doctor or consult with a medical professional before attempting cold water immersion.
Benefits of Cold Therapy:
Ok, So we went through all the possible risks.
Now, let’s do a quick overview of the potential health benefits a few minutes of cold exposure (aka cold therapy) can have!
- Faster Recovery – Multiple studies found ice baths provide a small reduction in post-workout muscle soreness. Could help you bounce back quicker.
- Reduced Inflammation – After intense exercise, the cold may have some anti-inflammatory effects on damaged muscle tissues, potentially aiding repair and reducing DOMS. Depending on your goals, you want to consider the timing of cold water therapy.
- Elevated Mood – Lab tests recorded increased feel-good endorphins and better moods following cold water therapy. The cold also releases norepinephrine which is linked to symptoms of depression (more norepinephrine can cause those good emotions).
- Improved Circulation – Short cold exposure makes your blood vessels constrict initially, followed by increased blood flow.
- Immune Activation – Early findings suggest repeated cold exposure could increase levels of certain helpful white blood cells.
- Mental clarity– Whether it’s due to related to elevated moods or alertness, cold showers can make you feel. Some anecdotes speak of increased mental clarity and focus after a cold shower.
Long Story Short: My Thoughts
Ultimately, taking the icy plunge depends mainly on your health situation and goals. As you read, immersion in cold water poses no significant risks. Especially if you are healthy, you are using cold plunging or DIY methods at home!
On the contrary, beyond all the trends and advertisements, cold water therapy has been shown to benefit people in many ways. Myself included!
I started with taking cold showers and slowly working up to baths. I can tell you I noticed changes in post-gym soreness, alertness, and overall mental resilience. If you are cleared by a medical professional, I definitely recommend you give it a shot!
Cold Plunge Risk: FAQ
How does cold plunging affect the body?
When you immerse your body in cold water, it triggers a response known as the cold shock response. This response activates the sympathetic nervous system and causes a surge of adrenaline and an increased heart rate. Over time, the frequency of cold plunging may help the body adapt to the stress of cold temperatures and improve overall resilience.
Can cold plunging help with muscle recovery?
Yes, cold plunging can aid in muscle recovery. The cold water helps reduce inflammation and swelling, which can relieve muscle soreness and promote faster recovery after intense exercise. That’s why many professional athletes use cold water immersion as part of their recovery routine.
Is hyperventilation a common risk during cold plunging?
Hyperventilation can occur when the body is suddenly exposed to the shock of cold water. This rapid breathing can lead to dizziness, lightheadedness, and even fainting. It is important to take slow and controlled breaths during a cold plunge to minimize the risk of hyperventilation.