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Respiratory responses to cold water immersion: neural pathways, interactions, and clinical consequences awake and asleep

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The ventilatory responses to immersion and changes in temperature are reviewed. A fall in skin temperature elicits a powerful cardiorespiratory response, termed “cold shock,” comprising an initial gasp, hypertension, and hyperventilation despite a profound hypocapnia. The physiology and neural pathways of this are examined with data from original studies. The respiratory responses to skin cooling override both conscious and other autonomic respiratory controls and may act as a precursor to drowning. There is emerging evidence that the combination of the reestablishment of respiratory rhythm following apnea, hypoxemia, and coincident sympathetic nervous and cyclic vagal stimulation appears to be an arrhythmogenic trigger. The potential clinical implications of this during wakefulness and sleep are discussed in relation to sudden death during immersion, underwater birth, and sleep apnea. A drop in deep body temperature leads to a slowing of respiration, which is more profound than the reduced metabolic demand seen with hypothermia, leading to hypercapnia and hypoxia. The control of respiration is abnormal during hypothermia, and correction of the hypoxia by inhalation of oxygen may lead to a further depression of ventilation and even respiratory arrest. The immediate care of patients with hypothermia needs to take these factors into account to maximize the chances of a favorable outcome for the rescued casualty.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2057-2064
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Applied Physiology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2006
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