Have you ever been in the shower and all of a sudden the water has turned ice cold, taking your breath away? Or maybe you’ve voluntarily turned the temperature down and started gasping straight away. Either way, a cold shower can be an uncomfortable experience at first. If you’ve ever been startled by the icy blast of cold water hitting your skin, you know just what I mean.

Gasping for air is part of an involuntary reaction commonly known as cold water shock. Understanding what happens to your body during cold water immersion can help you manage your breathing and get the benefits of cold showers or wild swimming.

The Benefits of Cold Water Therapy

Cold water therapy is not just sitting in an ice bath, it includes cold showers and cold water swimming too. It can feel uncomfortable at first but cold water therapy can have a number of health benefits. Briefly, those benefits include:

  • Improves circulation – Cold water causes blood vessels near the skin to constrict while increasing blood flow to the internal organs to regulate the core body temperature. This also helps lower blood pressure.
  • Boosts immunity – Brief bouts of cold exposure release white blood cells and hormones that activate the immune system. It can help fight inflammation.
  • Relieves depression and increases alertness – Stimulates release of noradrenaline and beta-endorphins that elevate mood naturally.
  • Aids muscle recovery – Studies have shown that cold water immersion can reduce delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise.
  • Enhances weight loss – According to Wim Hof, the well-known motivational speaker and extreme athlete, cold water immersion is able to increase the metabolic rate by as much as 16%. This is due to the body having to work harder to produce heat for the body.

What Makes You Gasp For Air In A Cold Shower?

A sudden drop in skin temperature from cold water triggers an automatic gasp reflex and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid in response to the cold temperature. This is called Cold Water Shock.

The 4 Stages Of Cold Water Shock

Cold Water Shock is a natural response designed to help the body cope with the sudden drop in temperature. There a 4 main stages:

4 Stages of Cold Water Shock
4 Stages of Cold Water Shock
  1. Cold Shock Response: When exposed to cold water, the body has an automatic reaction known as the Cold Shock Response. This can affect breathing and usually occurs within the first minute of exposure. The response is triggered by the rapid cooling of the skin, causing an involuntary gasping reflex. If the head is submerged, there is a risk of inhaling water and potentially drowning. To prevent this, it is crucial to wear a life jacket to keep the head above water during this critical phase. Additionally, hyperventilation is a common response to the cold, similar to the gasp reflex, but it will naturally diminish. It’s essential to remain calm and regulate breathing during this time, as panic can worsen the situation.
  2. Cold Incapacitation: When exposed to cold water for the first five to fifteen minutes, a phenomenon occurs where the body tries to maintain its core heat. This causes vasoconstriction, which reduces blood flow to the extremities while protecting vital organs. As a result, people may feel a loss of mobility in their arms, legs, hands, and feet. Without a life jacket, it may be extremely difficult to remain buoyant.
  3. Hypothermia: It takes at least 30 minutes for most adults to develop hypothermia, which provides ample time for proactive measures and survival. Remaining calm is critical because there is more time for survival than initially perceived. Symptoms encompass:
    • Shivering
    • Sluggish and shallow respiration
    • Confusion
    • Drowsiness or extreme fatigue
    • Slurred speech
    • Impaired coordination
    • Feeble pulse
  4. Circum-Rescue Collapse: This final stage of cold water shock, which can occur just before rescue, has symptoms that range from fainting to fatality. Some experts theorize that a sudden drop in blood pressure may instigate it.

Why Cold Water Shock is Dangerous

While cold water shock is a normal protective function, it can be dangerous in some situations. Here are the main risks to be aware of:

  • Heart attack – The strain of sudden cold water exposure causes a spike in blood pressure and heart rate. This stress could trigger a heart attack. Those with a history of heart disease are at highest risk.
  • Drowning – Gasping, hyperventilation, and panic makes it easy to inhale water. Loss of muscle control due to cold can also lead to drowning. Children are particularly susceptible to this.
  • Hypothermia – Rapid cooling of the body results in incapacitation and confusion, risking drowning. Core temperature drops quickly in cold water. Even strong swimmers are at risk.
  • Asthma attack – Cold air entering the lungs can trigger bronchospasm in asthmatics. This compounds breathing issues.

Are You At Higher Risk?

Certain factors increase your likelihood of having a hazardous reaction to cold water immersion:

  • Pre-existing health conditions like heart disease, asthma, or diabetes
  • Age – Children and the elderly are more susceptible
  • Being pregnant
  • Intoxication from alcohol or drugs, which impairs swimming ability
  • Not being able to swim or poor swimming skill
  • Being underweight with less natural insulation

Those at higher risk should be cautious when entering cold water and not swim alone or after consuming alcohol to avoid respiratory or cardiac events.

How To Minimize Cold Water Shock

While you can’t avoid triggering the gasp reflex, you can take steps to acclimatise more gradually and minimize breathing disruption. Here are tips to prevent issues:

How To Breathe During Cold Water Exposure

If You Fall into Cold Water Unexpectedly

  • Try to remain calm and take control of your breathing. Deep inhales through the nose can help.
  • Float on your back until breathing regulates. This stabilizes the head above water.
  • Call for help if needed. Don’t try to swim until respiratory distress subsides.
  • Get out of the water to warm up ASAP if possible. Seek medical help for bluish skin.

If You Plan On Cold Water Swimming

  • Acclimate slowly – wade in up to your knees and splash water over your torso before fully submerging.
  • Breathe deeply before immersing to activate the mammalian diving reflex which conserves oxygen.
  • Consider wearing an insulated swim cap and wetsuit which reduces body heat loss.
  • Swim where others are present who can help in an emergency. Don’t swim alone.
  • Avoid drastic temperature differences which intensify cold shock. Stick to cooler water instead of freezing.

Making Cold Showers More Tolerable

If you want to experience the benefits of cold therapy, here are tips to ease into it:

  • Start with lukewarm water, and gradually turn the temperature down. Give your body time to adjust.
  • Focus on taking deep belly breaths – this engages the mammalian diving response.
  • Begin with shorter cold water exposure (30-60 seconds) before working up to longer periods.
  • End your shower with 30 seconds of warm water to aid recovery.
  • Consider alternating hot and cold water to stimulate circulation.
  • Listen to upbeat music which provides a distraction.


When taking a cold shower, you may experience a gasping sensation and difficulty breathing, which is caused by the Cold Shock Response. This natural reaction happens within the first minute of exposure to cold water and is triggered by the rapid cooling of the skin. Your skin sends a signal to your brain when it comes into contact with the cold water, causing an involuntary gasping reflex. The reflex can be so strong that if your head is submerged, there’s a risk of inhaling water and drowning. To prevent this danger, it’s crucial to wear a life jacket when in cold water to ensure your head stays above the surface during this critical time.

When faced with cold temperatures, our body has two reflexes – gasping and hyperventilation. Hyperventilation causes us to breathe quickly and shallowly, making us feel even more breathless. To cope with this feeling during a cold shower or water immersion, it’s important to stay calm and control our breathing. Panicking will only make things worse. By focusing on regulating our breath, we can adapt better to the cold and enjoy the many benefits of cold water therapy, such as improved circulation, stronger immunity, and heightened alertness.

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