Is cold water therapy good for you?

Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP
22 June 2022
Next review due June 2025

Cold water therapy has become increasingly popular in recent years. There are cold water retreats, celebrity followers and even TV shows dedicated to this new trend. Supporters claim it can help with everything from your circulation to your mental health. But what does cold water therapy involve exactly and is there any evidence behind the claims?

woman swimming in ice water

What is cold water therapy?

Cold water therapy means immersing your body in cold water (water that’s less than 15°C). To give you a rough idea, the water coming from your cold tap at home will be less than 20°C (and usually between 10 and 20°C). Cold water therapy can involve taking an ice bath, a cold shower or having an outdoor swim. Whichever you choose, it’s usually only for a few minutes at a time. There are also centres and retreats that run more tightly controlled cold water immersion therapy sessions.

Ice swimming is a more extreme type of cold water swimming. This is swimming in water that’s no more than 5°C. It’s become popular in recent years as part of the Wim Hof method. This combines cold therapy, breathing techniques and mind exercises. It aims to get your body and mind into the best possible condition.

What are the benefits of cold water therapy?

Cold water therapy has been reported to benefit the body in many ways, including:

  • reducing muscle pain and stiffness after exercise, by reducing swelling and inflammation
  • improving risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • boosting the immune system, helping to lower the risk of infection
  • improving general wellbeing, and possibly helping with depression 

But the evidence is often quite scarce, and based on small studies or anecdotal evidence (people’s personal experiences). This doesn’t mean it’s not right. It just means that there’s not enough scientific evidence to support all the claims.

There has been some evidence for the Wim Hof method having a possible benefit in inflammatory-related conditions. But further research is needed to say for certain. And it could be the breathing techniques and meditation that provide the benefit, rather than the exposure to extreme cold.

Is cold water therapy safe?

Cold water puts your body under stress. This is how it’s believed to produce many of the positive effects, like boosting the immune system. But it also means it can be dangerous, and even fatal for some people. Cold water immersion can trigger:

  • cold water shock – an automatic response where your heart rate increases and you lose control of your breathing
  • arrhythmias (heart rhythm disorders)
  • hypothermia, when your core temperature gets too cold

Building up sessions gradually can help your body to adapt to the cold and lessen the risk of cold water shock. Many of these problems are more likely if you have any underlying medical conditions, such as problems with your heart or asthma. If you’re concerned about how cold water therapy may affect you, discuss it with your GP before trying it. Remember – cold water therapy won’t be suitable for everybody.

How can I try cold water therapy?

If you want to try cold water therapy, it’s important to keep sessions brief and build them up gradually. Here are some pointers to get you started.

  • Try a cold shower first. This is less intense than outdoor swimming, and can help to test how your body responds. Gradually reduce the temperature and increase the length of time you spend in cold water as your body gets used to it.
  • If you want to try open water swimming, find an organised group or session, supervised by experts. Never go alone. Start in the summer months, when waters aren’t so cold. Again, build up the time you spend in the water slowly.
  • After your session, warm up gradually by removing wet clothes, drying yourself and dressing in warm layers. Having a warm drink and something to eat (preferably sweet) can help. Don’t have a hot bath or shower, as the sudden change in temperature can be dangerous.

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Samantha Wild
Dr Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP

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