Popular ‘polar plunge’ isn’t safe for everyone

Popular ‘polar plunge’ isn’t safe for everyone

It’s on! Late night television host Jimmy Fallon has accepted Rahm Emanuel’s dare and will be joining the Chicago mayor for the Polar Plunge this Sunday at North Avenue Beach.

And with the predicted high being a measly 20 degrees, the new host of “The Tonight Show” and the 2,500 Chicagoans expected to attend are in for a frigid swim.

While for a great cause (Polar Plunge proceeds benefit the Chicago Special Olympics), the annual event also has some real risks. Especially when it comes to your heart, says Dr. Mehran Jabbarzadeh, cardiac electrophysiology specialist at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill.

“When you jump into the cold water, your external blood vessels will constrict,” Dr. Jabbarzadeh says. “Blood pressure, heart rate — they all go up. Your heart ends up having to work harder than it normally would to pump blood through the body.”

For healthy people this may mean temporary irregular heart rhythms, Dr. Jabbarzadeh says, but for those with underlying heart conditions, the additional workload could trigger a heart attack.

“Anyone with major medical problems, as well as children and the elderly, should talk with a doctor before participating,” says Dr. Cameron Colvig, an emergency room physician at Advocate Condell Hospital.

“But if you’re committed to plunging, the popular event luckily seems to be harmless for most people. Especially if you use common sense and prepare,” Dr. Colvig adds. “You definitely want to place a limit on your exposure time. And if something doesn’t feel right, get out of the water immediately.”

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers the following tips for cold water immersion:

  • Wear proper clothing – wool and synthetics are best (not cotton)
  • Use a personal flotation device, such as a life vest or dry suit
  • Bring a buddy or have a means of being retrieved from the water

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  1. If you ask me, it’s cold enough outside that I don’t need to jump into cold water. The cause is a great one and they are some brave people who do it!

  2. Agreed, Shannon!

  3. Another expert, study or report to scare us. I am really trying to like this newsletter; it is all same stuff. Years ago I came to the conclusion that the medical field has way too much time and money. Articles like this point validate my position.

  4. Am I still considered a polar plunger if I only go in knee deep (like last year)?

  5. I think I’d rather make a donation NOT to take the plunge. This year is going to be especially cold. Best of luck to all who are taking the plunge!

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.