Exercise and Fitness|Prevention and Wellness|Sports Safety

Scuba Diving Safety

Scuba diving is a popular recreational sport. Scuba stands for “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.” When people scuba dive, they go underwater at depths of up to 130 feet. They breathe through a mouthpiece that is attached to a tank of compressed air.

Scuba-certifying agencies provide training for divers, from beginners to experts. Three agencies that offer certification courses are the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), and Scuba Schools International (SSI). Basic courses involve classroom instruction as well as water training in pools and open-water settings. You can get certified in as little as 5 open-water dives. This allows you to rent equipment, refill tanks, and dive without supervision. However, most agencies recommend you dive in a buddy system, a group of 2 or 3 divers.

Path to safety

Most severe dive-related injuries and deaths happen to divers who are new or go beyond their training or experience. To be safe, always dive within the limits of your experience and level of training. Never try a dive you’re not comfortable with.

Good rules to follow for safe diving include:

  • Never dive without a buddy.
  • Never dive if you have a cold or are congested in your ears or nose.
  • Always plan your dive, and always dive your plan.
  • Check your diving equipment to make sure it works. Use the right gear that can handle your planned dive.
  • Do not drink alcohol or take drugs before diving.
  • Ask your doctor what medicines are safe to use when diving.
  • Ask your doctor how diving can affect your health. It can be dangerous if you have certain health problems.
  • Become familiar with the underwater area and its dangers. Learn which fish, coral, and other hazards you should avoid to prevent injury. Be aware of local tides and currents.
  • Obey all diving instruction. As you descend, make sure you equalize your ears and mask. At depth, stay inside the parameters of the dive tables and computer. This information helps you avoid decompression sickness.
  • Never hold your breath while ascending. Your ascent should be slow and your breathing should be normal.
  • Never panic under water. If you become confused or afraid during a dive, stop, try to relax, and think through the problem. Ask for help from your dive buddy or dive master.
  • Cave diving is very dangerous. Only divers with proper training and equipment should attempt it.
  • If you don’t feel well or if you are in pain after diving, go to the nearest emergency room right away.
  • Do not fly for 12 hours after a no-decompression dive, even in a pressurized airplane. If your dive required decompression stops, don’t fly for at least 24 hours.

If you or a dive buddy has an accident while diving, call 911 and then call the 24/7 Divers Alert Network (DAN) at 919-684-9111. Doctors, nurses, and emergency technicians are available 24 hours a day. They will answer your questions and provide help. If needed, they will direct you to the nearest hyperbaric chamber or appropriate medical facility.

Things to consider

The most common health problem in scuba diving is middle ear “squeezes.” These produce pain in your ears caused by pressure. The deeper you go in the water, the higher the pressure is in contrast with your body. This condition can occur if you are unable to equalize the pressure in your ears as you dive. You can relieve the pressure by yawning, swallowing, or blowing with your nose and mouth closed. This is known as “popping” your ears. Squeezes that affect your inner ear or sinuses are less common.

You can get cuts, scrapes, and other surface injuries. Fish, coral, or other marine life can cause these. Other threats include debris, fishing line, and exposed metal or wood on wrecks.

Below are severe health problems related to scuba diving.

  • Inner ear barotrauma.This condition can occur from unbalanced ear pressure or a quick descent in the water. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, ear pain or ringing, and hearing loss.
  • Pulmonary barotrauma.This condition can occur from improper breathing as you ascend to the water’s surface. It also can occur from diving with a respiratory tract infection. Symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, and hoarseness. There is a chance you may pass out.
  • Decompression sickness (“the bends”).This condition can occur if you ascend from deep water to the surface too quickly. Your body releases nitrogen gas that forms bubbles in your bloodstream. The bubbles can damage your body tissues and block blood vessels. Decompression sickness affects your lungs, brain, and spinal cord. Symptoms include chest pain, joint pain, trouble breathing, and bladder problems. You can become delirious or paralyzed. Signs of severe decompression sickness are dysfunction of the spinal cord, brain, and lungs. Flying after scuba diving can worsen this condition.
  • Air embolism.This can occur when bubbles enter your bloodstream and travel to your brain. It can be a type of barotrauma or an effect of the bends. If the bubbles enter a vein, it is called a venous air embolism. If they enter an artery, it is called an arterial air embolism. Milder symptoms include dizziness, confusion, trouble speaking, and numbness. You can suffer from blindness, deafness, seizures, or paralysis. An extreme air embolism can cause a heart attack, stroke, or respiratory failure.

Fortunately, severe health problems from scuba diving are rare. However, you should seek care right away if you have any symptoms listed above. You may require hyperbaric oxygen therapy. This consists of lying in a chamber, or vessel, that has increased pressure. It feels similar to being underwater. The therapy helps to reduce or remove bubbles from your bloodstream.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What health conditions prevent me from scuba diving?
  • What medicines can I take while I’m scuba diving?
  • What should I do if I feel ill after scuba diving?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Swimming and Diving Safety

Divers Alert Network

National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI)

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