Why holding your breath for a prolonged period of time is a bad idea
You’re stationed poolside while your kids are engaged in a game nearby, seeing who can hold their breath the longest underwater. It’s a busy community pool, but there’s a lifeguard, and your kids are all good swimmers, so you settle in for a relaxing afternoon with a book.
Do you have anything to worry about? If your kids are playing breath-holding games, yes. They could experience what’s called shallow water blackout, a little-known phenomenon that is basically an underwater faint, which can endanger the most experienced swimmers. Youth most at risk are those who are playing around in any body of water—ocean, pool, lake or pond, or those engaged in a competitive water sport, such as swimming or synchronized swimming. The most experienced adults are even at risk. The nonprofit site ShallowWaterBlackoutPrevention.org has a Memorial page that lists off the tragic victims—everyone from preteen boys to a Navy SEAL, champion swimmers, snorkelers and free-divers. And the sad thing is, explains the organization’s expert, Dr. Alan M. Lake, shallow water blackout “is totally preventable by proper education and training techniques.”
How does it happen?
Shallow water blackout usually occurs in just that—shallow water when a swimmer or diver begins to swim underwater. This is what happens with SWB: The level of carbon dioxide is usually low in the swimmer’s system because he or she might have just hyperventilated. An athlete might have recently completed a training exercise or took a deep breath several times in rapid succession in order to swim further.
Then as the athlete is underwater his or her carbon dioxide level rises but not quickly enough to signal the brain to breathe, while the oxygen level falls rapidly. The person then faints underwater from hypoxia (low oxygen) to the brain, with no other symptoms or awareness of the need to breathe. The results can be horrific because the drowning is silent and immediate. And because the swimmer has a low oxygen level at the time of fainting, brain damage can occur within 2 and a half minutes (unlike regular drowning in which it takes 6-8 minutes), and death is very likely unless immediate resuscitation is performed.
SWB happens with no warning, and in fact a swimmer could feel absolutely fine right before it strikes. Unfortunately, it continues to happen because there’s a lack of education, awareness and understanding about the dangers of breath holding. Experts say that SWB may be the leading cause of water deaths because these deaths are often misdiagnosed as traditional drowning. With a little education, you might not only save your child’s life, but someone else’s, too.
What can you do?
- 1. Talk to your kids and friends about the dangers of breath-holding games and why they’re dangerous
- 2. If your child is on a swim or synchronized swim team, talk to the coach about training and make sure prolonged breath holding (also called hypoxic training) isn’t part of the training drills. USA Swimming has warned about the dangers of this. And issued a report on it
- 3. Tell your kids never to hyperventilate in an effort to stay underwater longer—contrary to popular belief it does not improve oxygen capacity.
- 4. If you or your child has to take a breath, don’t ignore the urge-come up for air!
- 5. Never swim alone.
- 6. Don’t rely on lifeguards to protect against SWB because it’s extremely difficult to detect from above water. Victims often quietly float to the bottom of the pool undetected.