Taking the Polar Bear Plunge? Here’s What You Need To Know

Thinking of taking the plunge — otherwise known as jumping into ice cold water? Now that winter’s chill has set in, it’s prime polar bear plunging season. Some take the plunge for charity, others to celebrate winter, and some just for the fun of it. It can be a thrilling experience, but for some, it can also be dangerous.

Gary Frisch of Laurel Springs, New Jersey once took the plunge to help raise money for a local soup kitchen. “I was afraid to do it,” he said, “but it was an exhilarating experience.”

It was early March and the lake water was cold. When the starting horn sounded, Gary and about 20 other participants ran into the lake. “It was an instant shock, almost like an electrical shock, but once in, I felt okay.”

At the time of the plunge, Gary was 42 years old and had a history of episodic atrial fibrillation. He had concerns, but felt reassured by the presence of an EMT crew.

“There’s a raft about 50 yards from the beach and for some reason I wanted to swim to the raft and turn around. Everyone else ran in a few yards, splashed around a little, then ran back. I was the only idiot swimming out! So I soon abandoned my goal and swam back. My kids were waiting for me with my sweat clothes and jacket, and a warm blanket. I noticed there were far more people there to watch us crazies than there were plungers!”

Gary said he never experienced such cold, but he was fortunate. His heart withstood the shock. He reports having no negative health effects and those few minutes in the cold water earned $350 for the soup kitchen.

Although he considered taking the plunge again, it never happened. Now approaching 50, Gary thinks his plunging days may be over.

For some people, plunging into cold water could be deadly

“When your body is shocked by cold water and exercise at the same time, not to mention panic, your blood circulation diverts to the heart and brain, and to a lesser extent the arms and legs you are using to swim,” Los Angeles internist Dr. Monya De told Care2. ”The health benefits are mainly psychological — you have conquered a fear.”

According to Dr. De, these people should NOT take a chance on the polar bear plunge:

  • Heart attack and heart failure patients, because of the sudden rise in blood pressure.
  • Stroke patients, for the same reason.
  • People with asthma, COPD, and heavy smokers, because cold causes the airways to constrict.
  • People with Raynaud’s syndrome, because of possible damage to the extremities from cold and lack of circulation.
  • People who have had surgery recently.
  • Anyone who has had low blood circulation causing damage to the intestines. For example, marathoners who had ischemic colitis after a race.
  • Rheumatologic disease patients.

Things to consider if you plan to plunge

  • If you have any doubt about the wisdom of jumping into icy water with certain medical conditions, ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to plunge.
  • Plunging should be a group activity — never jump into icy water alone. If you’re plunging with a group, find out if an EMT will be on standby.
  • Don’t drink alcohol before the plunge.
  • Bring towels, blankets, and a coat for when you get out of the water. And don’t forget to bring some dry, warm clothes.
  • Ideally, you should have a partner who will stay on dry land to keep an eye on you and greet you with a blanket.
  • If you’re plunging in a natural body of water, don’t stray too far from shore.
  • Plan for a brief dip — staying in cold water too long could cause hypothermia.
  • Plan ahead for what you would do if someone shows signs of hypothermia.

Signs of hypothermia and what to do about it

The CDC lists these warning signs of hypothermia:

  • shivering
  • exhaustion
  • confusion
  • fumbling hands
  • memory loss
  • slurred speech
  • drowsiness

When you’re cold, you lose heat a lot faster than your body can make it, so you use up all your stored energy. When your body temperature drops too low, it can affect your brain. It gets harder and harder to move and think clearly. Never get into cold water alone — once your body temperature drops, you probably won’t realize what’s happening in time to react. Make sure there’s someone to keep an eye on you.

If you spot a polar bear plunger in trouble and there’s no EMT around:

  • Call or have someone else call 9-1-1.
  • Get the victim out of the water and, if possible, into a warm shelter.
  • Remove wet clothing.
  • Warm the center of the body first: the chest, neck, head, and groin. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, or clothing.
  • Give them something warm to drink if it’s available — but NOT alcohol.
  • Keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket until medical help arrives.
  • A person with severe hypothermia may lose consciousness. DO NOT try to give a drink to an unconscious person. If the person isn’t breathing, start CPR. Continue until the victim responds or until medical help arrives. According to the CDC, in some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.

Related Reading
Warning Signs for Cardiac Arrest That Most People Ignore
Video: Just a Little Heart Attack
How Diabetes Affects Your Heart

Photo: mihtiander/iStock/Thinkstock


Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Kathryn Irby
Past Member 3 years ago

This activity is about as dumb as it gets.

Dainy Arroyo
Dainy Arroyo3 years ago


Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago


Carol S.
Carol S3 years ago

Not for me!

Danuta Watola
Danuta W3 years ago

thanks for sharing

Natasha Salgado
Past Member 3 years ago

thanks 4 the info

Brett Cloud
Brett Cloud3 years ago