Holding Your Breath Underwater

Canadian Red Cross strongly discourages Canadians from trying to hold their breath under water for extended periods of time.

How long you can safely hold your breath depends on a number of factors including age, body mass and overall health.  Most people can hold their breath comfortably for about 1-2 minutes.  Trying to hold your breath for much longer than this, especially under water, may be dangerous.

Our bodies need both oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2)  to survive.  The impulse to breathe is triggered by a balance of O2 and CO2 in our blood stream. 

Many people will take several large, forced breaths or a series of short, fast breaths before trying to hold their breath under water for a long period of time. This is called hyperventilating, and it can disrupt the balance of O2 and CO2 in your body, fooling your brain into thinking that it doesn’t need to take another breath. 

If this happens, your body can quickly use up most of its available oxygen, and you can easily pass out. After you have passed out, the body’s natural responses will take over:  you will gasp for breath, or you may stop breathing all together.

Either way, if this occurs underwater, you are at serious risk for drowning.  People have drowned in Canada in less than 15 centimetres of water.

We encourage Canadians to swim safely: swim with a buddy, swim in supervised areas, enrol in a Red Cross Swim course.