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Winter Drowning Risks: Cold Water and Ice Pose Serious Drowning Risks

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

Guest Blogger - Rebecca Wear Robinson, Make the Minute Matter

When the first snow hits before Halloween, you know it is going to be a cold winter. When you think of ice and snow, you don’t think of drowning, but you should.

Lake Michigan may look frozen close to the shore, but those ice slabs are constantly shifting and changing. Rivers, ponds, drainage ditches - they all appear to be great for skating and sledding, but it’s impossible to tell whether the ice is thick enough to support your weight, or your child’s weight. Often snow covers the ice and you are in trouble before you know it.

If you fall into cold water:

• If you are wearing a lifejacket (PFD), curl up in a ball, with your legs and arms close to your chest to conserve body heat, and yell for help.

• If you are not wearing a lifejacket, gently tread water and keep your head above water. The goal is to conserve body heat until help can arrive.

• Keep all your clothes on to avoid losing body heat too quickly.

• Keep a positive attitude - a will to survive really does help.

If someone falls through the ice:

• CALL 911 - Call 911 immediately or go for help. Heroics by well‑meaning but untrained rescuers sometimes result in two deaths.

• STOP - Do not run to the edge of the hole - there is a good chance you will also fall in, especially if it was a lighter child or a pet that broke through the ice.

• SHOUT - Shout to the victim to encourage them to tread water and fight to survive. Reassure them that help is on the way.

• REACH ‑ If you can safely reach the victim from shore, extend an object such as a rope, ladder, or jumper cables to the victim. If the person starts to pull you in, release your grip on the object and start over. Do not reach with your hand or they may pull you in.

• THROW ‑ Toss one end of a rope or something that will float to the victim. Have them tie the rope around themselves before they are too weakened by the cold to grasp it.

Click here ( ) for more tips about surviving in cold water.

It’s better to avoid breaking through the ice in the first place. Here is some ice trivia that may just save your life:

• Ice near shore can be weaker than ice that is farther out. (Lake Michigan ice is never safe!)

• New ice is usually stronger than old ice. Four inches of clear, newly-formed ice may support one person on foot, while a foot or more of old, partially-thawed ice may not.

• Ice seldom freezes uniformly. It may be a foot thick in one location and only an inch or two just a few feet away.

• Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous. This is especially true near streams, bridges and culverts. Also, the ice on outside river bends is usually weaker due to the undermining effects of the faster current.

• The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process. The extra weight also reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support.

Cold water and ice aren’t the only places you can drown in winter - be careful indoors as well.

Children under the age of one typically drown in the bathtub. Never leave children unattended in the bath, not even with siblings, who don’t know what drowning looks like. Swimming pools are a great place for families to burn off energy in the winter, but take precautions. Children aged 1-4 are most likely to drown in swimming pools. Always swim where there is a lifeguard on duty. Keep young children or weak swimmers within arms-length. A lifejacket is always a great extra layer of safety, especially for young children, weak swimmers, and children or adults with disabilities.

Your only dilemma this winter should be whether to serve your hot chocolate with marshmallows, or without. Following these simple water safety precautions will mean that you and your family can enjoy the sledding, skating, and making snow angels, safely.

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