Divers may have the ability to breathe underwater, but we’re still human. There may come a time when you need to cough, sneeze, vomit, or experience vertigo underwater. It’s not safe to rush to the surface, so what do you do?
Coughing / Choking
The gas you breathe from a scuba tank can be a bit dry, and sometimes it’s necessary to cough. Or maybe, while laughing at your dive buddy, you get a little water down your throat. It’s perfectly alright to cough into your regulator until your airway is clear.
If you feel that tell tale tickle in the back of your throat, try to move into an open area where you won’t bump into anything. Also, be aware of your buoyancy as you may unknowingly hold your breath.
Sometimes a cough is more than just a cough. If you have chest pain and/or difficulty breathing in addition to a dry cough, these could be signs of Type 2 DCS. If the cough has a metallic taste, or if you experience shortness of breath accompanied by a feeling of liquid rising from the back of your throat, discontinue the dive and seek immediate medical help. These are symptoms of a rare but serious condition called immersion pulmonary edema (IPE).
Sneezing underwater is more or less like sneezing on land. If you feel a sneeze coming on, gently hold your regulator in, and try to sneeze through your mouth instead of your nose. Breathe normally until the sneeze comes; never hold your breath underwater. If water (or something else) leaks into your mask, find a safe opportunity to pause and clear it out.
If you’re in the middle of an ascent or descent, it’s a good idea to signal or grab onto your buddy. S/he can help maintain your position in the water.
Vertigo / Disorientation
Vertigo feels like the world is spinning, or turning upside down. If you experience vertigo when diving, and lose track of where the surface is:
– Exhale and watch where your bubbles go. Follow them slowly to the surface.
– Look for water droplets in your mask, they will always drip down. Head the opposite direction.
If you experience vertigo during or after a dive, discontinue diving for the day and contact DAN. Vertigo can be a sign of decompression sickness, hypoxia, contaminated breathing gas, an ear equalization issue, or a side effect of seasickness medication.
If you feel the need to vomit, the best thing you can do is hold your regulator in and let your body do what it needs to do. Modern second stages can take it.
Don’t take your regulator out, even partially. After the expulsion, you may reflexively inhale; if the regulator isn’t in your mouth, you’ll suck in water instead of air.
If you can hold onto a buddy or otherwise steady yourself in the water, this can prevent uncontrolled ascents or descents. When you feel ready, ascend safely and discontinue diving for the day. If your regulator is unsuitable for breathing, switch to your alternate. At the surface, seek treatment and stay hydrated.
Learn more about how to be prepared for a variety of diving emergencies in the PADI Rescue Diver course. It’s serious fun and it will help you become a better dive buddy.
PADI Dive Centers and Resorts also offer first aid and CPR training through Emergency First Response. Get the skills you need to care for someone until emergency responders arrive.