Being underwater/wet for long periods of time

I’ve looked around, and I cannot find anything on this thing I’ve been curious about.
What happens to your body if you are underwater for long periods of time? Pretend it’s shallow, too, so no worrying about your head exploding from pressure or anything. Also, assume you have a good breathing device, you’re eating somehow, you can sleep and sit and stand, everything is the same…except you’re totally underwater. We know your fingers and toes start to get all prune-y, but what happens next to the rest of your skin? Are our bodies able to handle being underwater for days or weeks (or longer?!), or would something happen, like it would start to mess with organs?
Similarly, what if you were not submerged, but constantly wet with no chance to dry off, like being in a shower for days. What would happen to the body then?


You need to be concerned with death by extreme prunification :smiley:

The skin would lose its protective ability, which is dependent on it being dry and able to retain oils. What happens next would depend on what kind of water and what else is in the water. Water that is closer to the tonicity and electrolyte content of body fluids would be better than hypo or hypertonic water. Water filled with an assortment of organisms would be worse than sterile water. Think trench foot, for example.
You’ve already spent about 9 months in sterile water of a perfect composition, which made you ugly at birth except to your mom but otherwise you did fine…

Yeah and if it’s hypertonic your cells explode, and if it’s hypotonic they shrivel. Either way, I was told by my Bio teacher that’s it’s extremely unpleasant to have every cell explode/shrivel at once.

David Blaine did this for a while. I think his skin started to come off. It was gross.

Yikes, talk about timely! I’m reading a collection of essays by David Quammen, Natural Acts; A Sidelong View of Science and Nature. This afternoon, read the essay “A Deathly Chill”, about hypothermia, especially in cases of being immersed in water. There, he states that many cases of drowning are, rather, hypothermia, as the body’s core temperature cools down when immersed in water much faster than at air temps. Drowning can be a result of the confused mental state of hypothermia, as well.

This is an older,1985, book, so I’ll type the quote:

“Because full immersion in water,…is more deadly still-because the thermal conductivity of water is 240 times that of still air. While a man overboard sculls gently to keep his face out of the waves, rides in his life jacket, hopefully for speedy rescue,the water sucks heat—and therefore life---- out of the core of his body at an unbelievable rate. Immersed in 32 degreeF, like the Titanic passengers,the average human will die within an hour. Immersed at 59 degrees F, he will die after 6 hours. And 59 degrees happens to be warmer than practically all of the coastal and inland waters of North America.”

In the essay, he details the processes of body core cooling by small increments, and, 78 degrees is when the body goes haywire, and ceases to function, as described by a physician and mountaineer.

It was interesting to me, that the body core temp seems so high, 78, that seems warm, but that’s when processes shut down. In reading it this afternoon, I wanted to know more, and the water temps here in NC are warmer than 59 degrees, as said in the essay. So, to piggyback on this thread, is hypothermia in water as dire an issue as the essayist paints it?

In addition to the skin problems, you would develop muscle atrophy over time because the water would support most of your weight. You would get fluid shifts because gravity isn’t pulling fluid from your head end to your feet, resulting in a puffy face and stuffed-up sensation. I suspect that you would get bone demineralization as well due to the lack of stress/strain on the bone; this could lead to kidney stone formation or other problems. Prolonged exposure to fresh water would lead to trouble with your corneas, as they are not designed for that environment - perhaps clouding; almost certainly discomfort and swelling. If you are breathing through a snorkel as opposed to breathing pressurized air a la SCUBA, you will experience increased work of breathing; this can lead to difficulty sleeping. Heck, even breathing through a scuba regulator is harder than breathing on land.

Hypothermia is a very real concern; but if you heat the water you’ll have to watch out for hyperthermia as well, since sweating won’t work to cool you off.

Yes, in fact he painst a somewhat rosy picture. The idea that an average person will survive for an hour in 32^oF water must be assuming they were wearing very heavy clothing when they went in, in which case the weight of the clothes would drown them. Wearing normal clothes such as a suit the life expectancy of a fully immersed person would be measured in minutes, which is why the movie “Titanic” was so ridiculous.

Well, you have the strange story of Mossman for consideration.

Aparently, soaking on a hot spring for a long time makes you feel all warm and fuzzy :stuck_out_tongue:

We’re not in outer space here. Why wouldn’t gravity be active in water?

Gravity would be active in the water. But most people are slightly buoyant, so you need to exert very little muscle effort to keep your face above water, and none at all if you are totally immersed and breathing through a snorkel or from a tank. I’m assuming here that the subject is floating or immersed, not standing in a swamp during a monsoon. People who are bedridden lose muscle mass even under the full effects of gravity because of decreased muscle use, and the same would be true underwater even if you were trying to be ‘active’ as much as possible. The muscles of your trunk and extremities would not have to be constantly working to maintain your upright posture, and moving your limbs against the resistance of the water is less work than fighting gravity. Because the muscles that normally do the most work against gravity are stronger than those that work with gravity (biceps are stronger than triceps, for instance), I suspect that immersed subjects would develop a different ‘neutral posture’, with the arms drawn up and in and the legs bent at the knee and extended at the ankle - like the posture of astronauts in microgravity. This would lead to permanent contractures given enough time.

As for the fluid shifts- in air, the external pressure gradient from your head to your feet is essentially zero. Fluids tend to pool in dependent portions of the body, like in your feet at the end of the day. In water, however, pressure goes up quickly with depth, so there is an external force that works to diminish this pooling. Imagine a water balloon, suspended from a string. In air it assumes a teardrop shape as the elastic walls of the balloon work against gravity to hold up the water. As you lower the balloon into a bucket of water, however, the balloon becomes more spherical. The balloon experiences a shift of fluid from the lowest portions toward the highest portions, even in the presence of gravity.

I was reading an account of the sinking of the Indianapolis a while back - the survivors spent four days or so in the water, after which their skin ‘peeled off like an onion’.

Argh, I made it all the way through the thread and here at the end you beat me. :slight_smile:

In In Harm’s Way the sailors are described as having different skin responses to the immersion; some had skin sloughing off of them that tore like tissue, but some had skin that had hardened such that it was very difficult to insert a needle.

I spent several months in a sealed chamber completely submerged in a mildly alkaline solution without suffering any serious ill effect.

As did we all, but those conditions were somewhat optimised for our survival.

I don’t think it was as completely sealed as you think it was… :wink:

However, you were coated with varnish at the time.

Wow, all these answers are all quite fascinating. The idea of exploding cells is certainly unpleasant, and the chronicles of Mossman…are odd. It’s interesting how something that anything can be dangerous in extreme amounts, even good ol’ water. Thanks!

I can give you a first hand account and it didn’t take all that long. I fell asleep in the bathtub twice in graduate school simply out of shear exhaustion. When I woke up about 7 hours later, my hands were so swollen as to be almost dysfunctional. The skin on my fingers split as well. It was quite painful and I could barely get out of the tub or open the doorknobs to get out. The skin on my feet split to a lesser degree but my hands were the worst and took a few of days to heal.

Might the soap content of your bath change the way the water effected your skin? What with Oils and such being a factor in water proofing your skin.