Knowing your limits can keep swimmers healthy

OPEN-WATER swimmers in Fermanagh have been warned to take care after a recent study found a link to the sport with a dangerous medical condition.

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) have published a report that outlines the risks of swimming-induced pulmonary oedema (SIPE) to swimming outdoors.

SIPE leads to fluid accumulation in the lungs resulting in difficulty breathing, low levels of oxygen in the body and a cough.


The BMJ report cited a case study of a female triathlete in her 50s who was struggling to breathe and coughing up blood following an open-air swimming event with the water temperature at 17 degrees Celsius.

When in hospital, she was found to have a rapid heartbeat with a chest x-ray diagnosing her as having pulmonary oedema.

However, Fr. Brendan McManus of Fermanagh Flounders Wild Swimming Club, states that while the report is a concern, if sensible guidelines are followed, then open-water swimming can still be an enjoyable and relatively risk-free activity.

He said: “Obviously that report should be treated seriously. But there are a couple of important things in that report.

“The first thing is that the article is generally to do with people who are in the water for a long time and in cold water. Often it applies to professional swimmers. Another article I read was about triathletes with one to three per cent of them coming across this problem.

“Respecting the water is one of the huge things you have to take into account. Knowing your limits and working within them is important. I would caution against going in the water for a long time or suddenly exposing your body to a lot of shock.

“Done in a safe way, recreational open-water swimming can be possible and be enjoyed. It’s just like anything – it’s very comparable to high-altitude mountaineering which has the same kind of risk associated with it.


Fr. McManus also advised those who are just starting out to tread water first before taking the plunge.

He added: “If you’re more realistic, don’t exert yourself and go with other people – maybe as part of a club – these things even out if you’re just more sensible about it.

“Kind of like swimming’s version of ‘walk before you can run’. That’s the key thing. Just take it easy because a lot of people literally take the plunge. For example, this time of year – the winter – is not the time to start open-water swimming as it’s the coldest time of the year.

“The water’s very cold and it exposes your body. I’ve been swimming right through the year for the past three years now, and while I haven’t had any issues, I’ve had to learn and respect the water, how to limit your time and how to get warmed-up. Basically, how to read your body in the water and knowing when to get out.”

Meanwhile, Professor Bill McEvoy, a cardiology professor at University of Galway, said the condition was not seen commonly in the context of cold-water swimming.

He said: “This is a potential rare complication, we need more research to understand how real this even is, and it probably applies to competitive, high-intensity sea swimming more so than the recreational sea swimming we commonly see.

“I think the report reflects a rare condition. It is a case report published in a medical journal and case reports are quite uncommon, rare presentations.”

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