Can You Get Sick From Surfing in Cold Conditions?Andrew Marsden
One of the perennial questions amongst those getting into surfing, open water swimming or any activity in cold conditions is, “Will I get sick?”
In Ireland and the UK the word summer has little bearing on the weather, and we can usually expect our fair share of rainy days and low temperatures even at this time of year. You only have to look out your window to be reminded!
It gets especially chilly by the sea and a lot more in it, which is why you will normally see those engaging in any water sports wearing a wetsuit. They’re engineered to safeguard our bodies from the elements and allow us to experience the unbridled joy and benefits of being amongst the waves.
While hardened surfers might prefer the colder months, others might still wonder if there are risks from getting in and out of the sea, or even going for a run on the beach when all the other signs are suggesting you should stay inside.
The dangers of being wet and cold
We’ve all heard it from our parents at one stage or another and maybe even used it ourselves, but contrary to the old saying you can’t actually “catch your death of pneumonia” from getting wet or cold outside.
What’s been misconceived for generations is that our immune systems are weakened when our body temperatures drop, leaving us more open to bacteria or viruses that cause pneumonia. The danger of this is that it’s an infection in the lungs that leads to extreme difficulty breathing, so if you are experiencing shortness of breath or a sore chest after prolonged dampness then you should get seen to at a hospital right away.
The more immediate danger while being exposed to cold, wet conditions is hypothermia, which is a medical emergency. Hypothermia can set in when our bodies lose too much heat and while we’re battling to prevent it our immune systems are left lowered. If your body drops to too low a temperature your vital organs will struggle to function and lead to death if problems persist. This is why it’s so important to prepare.
There are other problems that can arise as well from negative reactions to the water, such as cold shock which causes hyperventilation if introduced to cold temperatures too suddenly. Cold incapacitation is when we think we’ve acclimated to the water but then all internal heat travels to our core, rendering limbs weak and loss of coordination, both of which can lead to drowning.
Cold water can also cause asthma attacks as well as muscle cramps, so make sure you’re never too far from shore and that there are others around in case you should experience either.
More commonly with wind and rainy weather is the idea that it will lead to colds and flus. That’s why the wintertime gets labelled as flu season after all. But similarly to pneumonia, the colder temperatures aren’t what cause sickness, but the germs and infections that are more likely to be picked up. So yes it is possible if you aren’t careful, but being stricken down with the cold relies on more than just the atmosphere itself. You can read more about the science here.
How you can avoid getting too cold from the sea
Naturally a certain degree of coldness is guaranteed with outdoor exercise and activities in this part of the world. But now that we’ve discussed some of the main reasons to be wary of it, here are some tips to help you manage these temperatures when heading out to surf, swim or for a run.
- Wear the right clothes. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, those you see doing any form of surfing activity will usually be wearing a wetsuit. There are practical advantages such as the added buoyancy they offer, making it easier to float or swim. But it is mainly for the insulation they provide in the thin layer between the material and our skin which helps prevent hypothermia. They also protect against wind and sunburn, so if you’re going to be out swimming or surfing in colder temperatures then make sure to rent or have your own wetsuit.
As for beach runs, you should invest in thermal running gear especially for when it’s raining. It may not sound appealing for when you want to be as free and ventilated as possible, but light layers including leggings, long-sleeved tops and windbreakers will stop you from getting numb and help you still work up a sweat when it’s freezing!
- Warm up before you start. Again this applies to any activities in the cold and is so important in the prevention of injury and further harm. Make sure to stretch your muscles and ease in with some lighter exercises before jumping into the water or sprinting off. This will help avoid you seizing up. And whatever you do, wade into the sea slowly if it’s cold or you could suffer from cold snap.
- Check conditions ahead of time. Even if you already have all the gear and have been swimming or surfing in open water for a while, you should still look up the weather and the temperature the water is reported to be on the day. This lets you know what you’re in for and perhaps if you are less experienced then there doesn’t have to be an added worry you weren’t prepared for. Refer to your local forecasts and check for your area on seatemperatures.org.
- Wear a Wet and Dry Robe. The dangers of the cold don’t just lie in the water. If you happen to be stood too long at the mercy of the icy air before or after swimming or surfing then your immune system could soon be compromised. A Wet and Dry Robe will allow you to change out of your wetsuit anywhere in public and its fat fleece lining will simultaneously keep you warm while helping to dry you if you’ve already been out.
These multi-purpose, one size fits all robes will transform your experience at the beach or wherever your chosen place for adventures may be. You’ll have ample room to get changed back into or out of your dry clothes underneath the robe without worry of revealing anything, wriggling with towels or finding public changing.
For those who are in regular contact with the colder elements, this cosy, weather resistant one-piece is an essential part of your wardrobe and once you buy it you’ll never head out without it.
- Know when you need to get warm. In addition to all of the previous points is the need to recognise when the conditions are simply too cold to continue safely. Rather than persevere stubbornly and risking your life and possibly others, be aware of how your body is feeling and reacting to its surroundings. Take notice of shivering or teeth chattering as these are the first symptoms of hypothermia and get yourself out of the water and have means to get dry and warm up. Never stray too far out alone and, especially if you’re a beginner, have someone out along with you or check that there’s a lifeguard on duty.
Most of those who have been surfing a long time will swear by the colder climates as creating a more exhilarating experience. It’s why so many travel to Ireland for their fix! But unless you’re carrying years of experience, and even then, we implore you to always be sensible and understand that we’re only human and the sea can be unforgiving. So watch out for each other and stay safe out there!
For further reading on surfing in cold water, check out this article.