swimming warning

What happens to your body when you drink alcohol and swim

Around 140 people drown in Ireland each year – and a third of these drownings have alcohol as a contributory factor.

WITH WARM  WEATHER being experienced in Ireland this weekend, a stark warning has been given for people to be aware of what happens when they drink alcohol and swim.

Irish Water Safety and have teamed up to warn people that alcohol is a contributory factor in one third of all drownings in Ireland – and that 140 people drown in Ireland every year.

False sense of security

Speaking to, Roger Sweeney of Irish Water Safety (IWS) outlined what happens to your body when you drink alcohol and swim.

“The alcohol lulls people into a false sense of security,” he said.

What it does is it affects people’s sense of distance and direction primarily.

He added that a lot of people are used to swimming in the pool, in still water. Conditions are different in open water, and distance and direction are affected by currents, pointed out Sweeney.

“You’re mixing alcohol and getting into a situation where there are currents. There’s distance as well. Often when people enter water they misjudge how long it takes to get to the other side of the river.”

“Once arms and legs start to lose heat, then you have no power in them”

Body temperature also plays a role in drowning. When people start swimming, said Sweeney, the water is still relatively cool. This can lead to hypothermia.

Adding to misjudging the distance to get to shore is the fact that it only takes 15 -20 minutes for core body temperature to reduce.

What reduces even faster than that is the temperature of the muscles in your legs and arms… Heat dissipates a lot quicker from muscles, arms and legs. Once arms and legs start to lose heat then you have no power in them. That is why people drown. People don’t have the power to swim that distance to get back.

“It’s not like Baywatch”

When people are so weak that they can’t swim, the signs of drowning are not the ones we see depicted on television or in films.

“It’s not like Baywatch, where they show somebody waving furiously,” pointed out Sweeney.

That is not how drownings occur. Drownings happen silently and quickly.

The person doesn’t wave because the body’s survival instinct is telling them to use their arms to tread water, and use their lung function primarily for breathing, not talking.

“You’re not only not waving your hands, you won’t be shouting either.”

As the muscles cool, it makes it harder to tread water. Soon, it can become impossible. “At that stage then you go down. You can go down silently. There could be people on the shore and they won’t even realise it until it’s too late.”

This can be compounded by the reality that if the person who is drowning had been drinking, their companions may have been too. “The potential rescuer, they can become victims as well even if not drinking,” said Sweeney.

Shout, Reach, Throw

The advice given to those who realise a person is in difficulty in the water is threefold.

  • Shout: “The encouragement to shore might be all they need to kick the legs and give one last chance.”
  • Reach: With a tree branch, a stick, a hurley, even clothing, to reach the person.
  • Throw: Throw a football, throw anything that floats to give the person a hand.


Research undertaken in July 2012 found that three in four people believe that the risks associated with driving a car are on par with driving a boat after consuming alcohol.

But only one in five respondents were aware you should wait one hour after consuming one standard drink before taking part in water-based activities.

There is approximately one standard drink in a glass – not a pint – of beer, lager, or cider; a small glass of wine; or a single pub-measure of spirits. On average, it takes about an hour for the body to process a standard drink. and Irish Water Safety advise “never ever drink and dive or surf or swim”.

Read: Irish Coast Guard warns people to ‘stay safe in the water’ this summer>

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