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Cold Water Baths for Heat Stroke: Every Minute Counts

Cooling an overheated athlete fast can be the difference between life and death. Heat stroke is a medical emergency, and rapid cooling within 30 minutes is critical. However, deaths from heat stroke continue to occur despite decades of research and cautions—and widespread agreement about the most effective method.

“Cold water immersion up to the neck is the most effective cooling modality for patients with [exertional heat stroke],” according to recommendations from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. Done properly, athletes can be brought to a safe body temperature within 15 minutes.

How cold is cold enough? Keep it within a range of 35-59 degrees F. Researchers from the Korey Stringer Institute report that a temperature of 50 degrees F works well; during 18 years of treating heat stroke with 50-degree baths at the Falmouth Road Race, they reported a 100% survival rate.

Using a cold water bath :

  • Acquire a 50-gallon tub, stock tank or kiddie pool (rubber or structural foam)
  • Half-fill with water and ice
  • Cool to a temperature of 35-59 degrees F before treating the athlete
  • Immerse athlete in the tub up to the neck, if possible
  • To speed cooling, remove excess clothing and equipment after athlete is in the tub
  • Place an ice/wet towel over the head and neck
  • To prevent overcooling, remove athlete from the tub when core body temperature reaches 102 degrees F

In the absence of a cold water bath:

  • Move the athlete to a cool, shaded area
  • Place ice water-soaked towels over the head, trunk, arms and legs—rapidly rotating towels to keep them cold
  • Apply ice packs to the neck, armpits and groin