Search icon


10th Jan 2023

Sea swimmers warned of potential lung condition caused by cold water

Fiona Frawley

two people swimming in the sea in wetsuits and swimcaps

The condition is more likely to affect women and older swimmers.

If you’re a fan of a dip into the icy blue sea to cure what ails ya, you may want to make yourself aware of this recent doctor warning,

Doctors have alerted sea swimmers about a relatively little-known hazard linked to open water swimming – fluid on the lungs.

In a study published by BMJ Case Reports authors say the condition, also known as pulmonary edema has been reported in 1 to 2 per cent of open-water swimmers.

Older swimmers, those swimming long distances in cold water and female swimmers are among those most likely to be affected, as well as those with high blood pressure and pre-existing heart disease. But fluid on the lungs can also affect those who are otherwise fit and healthy, authors say.

The study references a woman in her 50s, a keen competitive long distance swimmer and triathlete.

Otherwise fit and well, the woman was struggling to breathe and coughing up blood after taking part in an open water swimming event at night in water temperatures of around 17°C while wearing a wetsuit. Her symptoms started after swimming 300 metres, the study says.

The woman had no medical history of note, but had experienced breathing difficulties during an open water swim a fortnight earlier, which had caused her to abandon the event and left her feeling breathless in the days afterwards.

On arrival at hospital, her heartbeat was rapid, and a chest X-ray revealed pulmonary edema. Further scans revealed that fluid had infiltrated the heart muscle, a sign of strain known as myocardial edema. But she had no structural heart disease.

Her symptoms settled within 2 hours of arrival at hospital and after careful monitoring, she was discharged the following morning.

The authors say it is currently not clear what causes SIPE. They advise swimming at a slower pace in warmer water, with another person and without a tight-fitting wetsuit, as well as avoidance of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, to minimize the risk.

They have also emphasised that this is just one case, however, and that their aim is to raise awareness about the little-known condition among doctors and swimmers.

Swim Ireland offers more advice on swimming in cold conditions HERE.

Header image via Shutterstock 

READ NEXT: One of the world’s best restaurants Noma announces 2024 closure