Cold shock is a swift, silent killer which has taken many lives. In the United Kingdom, the authorities put out a public service announcement to warn people of the dangers. In the United States, the National Weather Service has a page to advise people. Yet, I seldom go to the National Weather Service page unless I am tracking a storm. However, I may very well have lost my youngest son to cold shock in 2022. Whether or not this condition caused his drowning death, I became aware of cold shock in the aftermath of his death.

My twenty-five-year-old son was a volunteer firefighter who was in very good health. He worked out multiple times a week. He was certainly physically fit. After hiking a forty-minute trail on a hot July day, he just wanted to cool down as he took in the beauty of a remote spot near Highlands, North Carolina. He set up his GoPro camera before he entered the water.

My son was probably about twenty or thirty feet from the base of a waterfall. Yet, when he entered the water, he seemed shocked by the temperature. I think that he believed that he would get used to the cold water. Nevertheless, he stayed still, submerged up to his shoulders, rather than moving around. Maybe, he was shocked into that stillness by the temperature difference. After a couple of minutes, my son did start to move around. Yet, he was obviously in distress. When he went under, his friend attempted to save him. However, he was already being dragged by a current toward the waterfall.

About a month before my son’s tragic death, another firefighter drowned in the Nantahala River. She was actually teaching a water rescue class at the time. Surely, she was wearing protective clothing. The forty-one-year-old mother of two was retrieved downstream by a rafting guide. However, efforts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful. Could her death have been caused by cold shock? Considering the temperature of the river water, it is certainly possible that cold shock could have been a factor.

I am familiar with the water temperature of the Nantahala River because I went whitewater rafting on it multiple times in my youth. I even ended up in the river on one occasion. Yet, I was wearing thick blue jeans, a shirt, and a life preserver. Also, I had an adrenaline rush from jumping into the river after my cousin and dad had fallen into the river. Immediately, I began to swim toward the side of the river to get out quickly. So, the forty-five-degree water temperature did not hurt me.

Another twenty-one-year-old young man died in a drowning accident on the Nantahala River last July about a year after my son’s tragic death. His sister-in-law told me that he was only wearing shorts, like my son was at the time of his death. We both had tears in our eyes as we compared our losses. I told her that I had wanted to get an expert to look at the GoPro footage. Maybe, others could be warned about this danger of cold shock if an expert could determine whether cold shock was the reason.

However, rather than wait I felt compelled to write about this realistic danger of cold water. Cold shock occurs much quicker than hypothermia. It can immediately affect your cognitive ability. It inhibits your muscular ability, as well. Cold shock can occur within one to three minutes in water temperatures of fifty-five degrees and lower. Cold water will deplete your body’s heat four times faster than cold air. So, humans have limitations. If we want to swim, then we need warmer water.


Cold Water Hazards and Safety (