Theory Thursday

Swimming Induced Pulmonary Oedema

I said I’d tell you how my wetsuit tried to kill me.  It’s a cautionary tale, but one that shouldn’t stop you participating in open water swims – just learn from my inadvertent mistakes!

the offending article

A swimming journey

It started out like this

old lady swimming

I might look worried but I was cruising along in an open-air heated pool at the Beccles tri, head out of the water, cheerily completing a mere 16 lengths.  Then, the multi-tasker made me sign up to an open water swim.  I had to buy a wetsuit.  They are sold by weight; not height or hip circumference.  I should have smelled a rat at this stage!

Off we went to Fritton Lake to practice.  Lovely wetsuit kept me very warm.  Lovely wetsuit made me extraordinarily buoyant.  I splashed about and felt lovely swimming in a lake in the summer watching herons take off from the bank.  But by the end of the session I felt a bit wheezy and duly ignored it.  Next session, I wheezed early in and had to stop.  I noticed pollen floating on the surface of the water and in the breeze so I self-diagnosed hay fever.  Next session I was armed with nasal spray, antihistamine and asthma inhaler.  It was a dull day with soft summer rain and no pollen.  I didn’t wheeze.  Job done, I thought.  Fritton lake triathlon on a cool day – tick, done, no wheeze.  Norwich triathlon on another cool day – tick, done, no wheeze.

Then it was the Aldeburgh triathlon and a 1km “with tide” sea swim.  Luckily (as it turned out) it was a team event, so I only had to do the swim.  I inhalered, I antihistamined, I figured it was the sea so there wouldn’t be any pollen.  I had a big fat arrogant head and pride goes before a fall!

I cycled down to Aldeburgh as a warm up and also because I felt a bit cheated I wasn’t going to bike and run after my swim.  I hydrated after that.  I walked 500m down the beach “half-in” my wetsuit.  I gamely participated in my now fully-on wetsuit in the beachside warm-up which involved air-squats and other undignified things I normally only do in the privacy of the pain cave.

I launched myself into the sea on the gun and the tide, literally, ripped me down stream, I barely had to swim, just bob up & down & keep my head above water.  A man next to me turned onto his back signalling that he was clearly in trouble, I hailed the safety kayak for him & swam blithely on, feeling fatally smug.

At 500m I felt a ruttle in my lower trachea.  I’d had that before, stupidly, I think I started to swim faster.  I think my twisted logic was – get out of the water faster and the ruttle won’t progress to a wheeze and you can get to your inhaler faster.  It got worse.  It was a wheeze, a noisy angry wheeze.  A kindly kayaker paddled alongside me to the shore which I made in 14m:51s (I normally swim 1km in 30 minutes in the pool!)  I legged it up to transition ripping off my wetsuit and then realised I was really quite wheezy in a “you need a nebuliser” sort of a way.  Oh the joy of the St. John’s ambulance.  Oh the hilarious coincidence of finding one of my ex-students was head of the crew.  (at least she’d had good teaching…..)

After finding my oxygen levels were low enough to require supplemental oxygen administration and a nebuliser they listened to my chest again.  The wheeze had gone, unmasking the real problem – crackles signalling pulmonary oedema – or “fluid in the lungs”.

Obviously, I wasn’t going to go to hospital, being a smug fat-headed arrogant twit, so I just went off to enjoy the rest of the day.  I did consent (with some arm twisting) to a lift home rather than biking.  Then later I read these articles: 

Swimming Induced Pulmonary Oedema – raising awareness about this potentially life-threatening condition 

And I was a bit chastened – a too tight wetsuit, overhydrating and warming-up on the beach in the compressive wetsuit had all conspired to push fluid into my lungs.  There’s no treatment, just oxygen, get the wetsuit off and wait 24-48 hours for it to go away.  But I am amused & cheered by this little gem (although it’s not quite enough evidence for me to go out and buy those little blue pills……….)

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A tiny hobbit dedicated to saving the world with a decent second breakfast. Also, available to make you feel good in triathlon when you overtake her.......

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