Is It Hard to Breathe While Diving?

It should be pretty evident that diving isn’t for just anyone. A great deal of preparation goes into making a dive, and we’re not just talking about the gear.

Not many people know this, but different people use air at different rates, which means that any preparation you might do for a dive has to involve taking your physical standards into consideration.

So, in a way, the question shouldn’t be “is it hard to breathe while diving,” but rather, how can one prepare to ensure that everything goes swimmingly once the actual diving begins?

Over the next few minutes, we’ll go over the physical requirements and expectations that any diver should be aware of before they commit to a dive.

Is it hard to breathe while diving?

How Do You Breathe While Diving?

As important as the quality of your equipment might be, as a diver, you have to rely on much more than just your gear. In fact, your own skills have a lot more to do with the success of your diving, and that’s the reason why you should perfect your craft instead of relying blindly on your fittings.

Here is how you can improve your breathing while diving:

  • Move slow – It is essential for any diver to slow their movements as much as possible so as to use less oxygen and prevent pressure injuries. You can practice by doing breathing exercises every chance you get.
  • Exercise – You need to understand that cardio exercising improves blood flow and maximizes blood oxygenation in the long run. This is crucial if you plan on being a diver, as most diving activities rely on making the most of what little oxygen you have available.
  • Learn Diaphragmatic Breathing – Unlike normal breathing, diaphragmatic breathing involves using your lower lungs to draw in air as opposed to using your chest. When done correctly, this will increase your lung capacity and make your breathing more efficient overall.
  • Breathe Deeper – While some people would feel compelled to take bigger breaths thinking that it would improve the amount of air available to them, the reality is that these big breaths do not increase the oxygenation rates of your blood flow. Instead, you should focus on taking deeper, more labored breaths, to maximize oxygen intake as much as possible.

What Happens If You Hold Your Breath While Diving?

While you may be tempted to hold your breath for as long as possible while you dive, doing so for extended periods of time may have some pretty serious consequences.

The main problem with holding your breath while diving is that when you descend, the pressure on your lungs increases, and thus, your lung volume decreases considerably.

While it might not be a problem for short dives, when doing deep dives, however, the pressure will constrict your lungs to a very small volume. When you resurface, the rapid decrease in pressure will cause your lungs to expand rapidly, which may cause you some serious injuries or even death.

We refer to these problems as “decompression sickness,” a term that encapsulates a series of health issues that may arise from improper breathing management and all the risks that go with it.

If you want to avoid barotrauma during ascent, for instance, you should always make sure to exhale while swimming upward. Bear in mind that your blood pressure changes dramatically the faster you descend/ascend, so following safety standards is paramount.

Common Scuba Diving Breathing Problems

Speaking of breathing problems, diving as a sport can get very dangerous very fast if you’re not careful. You would do well to remember that diving, as fun as it may be, bears with it some pretty serious health risks.

Risk of Arterial Gas Embolism

Aside from the obvious chest pain a diver may experience, there is also a risk of arterial gas embolism (AGE), which is what happens when air diffuses into the bloodstream and then make its way to the capillaries in the brain, causing an air bubble and blocking blood flow altogether.

Risk of Mediastinal Emphysema

It isn’t just arterial gas embolism that should concern you. You may also develop mediastinal emphysema (ME) which is when air gets trapped in the cavities around the heart muscles. In extreme cases, this can lead to total heart failure.

Risk of Pneumothorax

This particular condition occurs when air is collected near the outer side of the lungs, causing the lungs to cave in. If this happens, the victim suffers collapsed lungs in the short-term and serious lung damage in the long run. Needless to say, the issue also causes severe chest pain and makes it difficult for the diver to focus on the dive.

Risk of Subcutaneous Emphysema

Subcutaneous emphysema happens when air pockets are formed near the collarbone close to the neck. The issue manifests itself through irritation of the skin and can render the skin squishy and soft to the touch. 

Although not as serious as the other conditions we talked about so far, it’s still something you want to avoid if possible.

These are just a few of the problems with breath-hold diving and why divers should instead focus on breathing techniques rather than holding their breath. 

The risk of AGE, ME, pneumothorax, and pulmonary barotrauma is real, and new divers are advised to educate themselves thoroughly on the causes and long-term risks of breath-hold diving as a practice. 

Inhaling Water While Scuba Diving – What’s the Risk?

Try as you might, sooner or later you’ll end up inhaling some water as a scuba diver – there’s little you can do to avoid it. Seeing how people breathe mostly through their noses, you are bound to accidentally use your nose at some point while you’re scuba diving.

Although most diving masks feature silicone seals to keep water from slipping inside the mask, this does happen from time to time. This also happens because no matter how good the mask may be, it can never maintain a complete seal on your face due to your facial expressions and face muscles that constantly push it away.

Now, it is very important to remember that a little water up the nose won’t harm you. In fact, you’re mostly using your mouth to breathe when you’re diving, so wet nostrils come with the territory.

It is also important to remember to resurface and not get into a coughing fit while you’re underwater. Inexperienced divers who do will soon enough start panicking, increasing their heart rate to dangerous levels, and making the water inhalation a whole lot worse.

When this happens, you are advised to simply blow your nose into the mask and refrain from using your nostrils for the remainder of your dive. Experienced divers do this without ever slowing down or even resurfacing.

Bear in mind that even casual scuba diving has an impact on your blood vessels and the oxygenation rates within your bloodstream. This is sometimes exacerbated by repetitive dives within a short time span.

These are just some of the risk factors you have to take into consideration if you’re thinking about becoming a diver, and it’s something that even elite breath-hold divers have to contend with sooner or later.

How to Breathe – Scuba Dive for Beginners

Seeing how breathing is something that we do both automatically and autonomically, when we become aware of our breathing, our breathing becomes more labored and inconsistent.

For most people, this means an increase in breathing frequency, which is something you want to avoid as a diver as much as possible. A good diver has to learn to not only keep track of his or her breathing, but also control it to a great extent.

To do that, a diver must learn to master several breathing techniques that they can employ as needed before and during each dive:

Diaphragmatic Breathing

This is the most common form of preparation, and it involves using the diaphragm to transfer oxygen to the lower parts of your lungs. This is because, on dry land, breathing is mostly performed at a shallow level. Underwater, however, oxygen needs to spread throughout the entirety of your lungs.

By breathing from the diaphragm, you don’t really need to inhale a large amount of air, but rather do it in a sustained and consistent fashion in order to spread oxygen as much as possible without too much physical effort.

Freedive Breathing

This technique is intended to help you develop better breathing habits and also become aware of your extremities in order to maximize oxygenation throughout your body. You do this by performing a diaphragmatic inhalation, pausing, and then relaxing.

You then use your chest to breathe in as you would on dry land, followed by another pause and by breathing out slowly afterward. You follow this up by moving your shoulders outward, then following the chest inhalation/exhalation routine.

Once you repeat these steps a few times, you will have effectively rid your lungs of residual air and greatly improved the oxygenation levels in your bloodstream. Bear in mind that you’re going to have to repeat the process before every dive.

Skip Breathing

Skip breathing is when you interrupt your normal breathing by holding your breath for a few moments before exhaling. Although difficult at first, this technique will help you a lot long-term as you get more comfortable doing it.

With the help of skip breathing, you will get better control over buoyancy, improve unconscious breathing, and end up saving a lot of air with each dive. Needless to say, a lot of work goes into mastering skip breathing so you should probably start practicing right away. 

This is a crucial part of any diver’s routine, and it’s a good way to avoid getting into trouble later on. That said, be advised that skip breathing shouldn’t make you light-headed or cause you any long-term effects whatsoever. If that’s the case, contact a medical professional immediately.

Do You Breathe Through Your Nose When Scuba Diving?

To put it bluntly, no. You cannot breathe through your nose when using conventional diving equipment, nor is it advised that you make use of any equipment that lets you do so. 

Even with a basic snorkel, you will have to rely on taking deep breaths through your mouth every time you come up for air.

This is because the scuba mask helps protect your eyes and nose by completely sealing them. As a result, it becomes impossible to use your nose throughout your dive.

As a matter of fact, every single piece of equipment that facilitates breathing underwater does so through the diver’s mouth. Over time, breathing through the mouth becomes a diving reflex and experienced divers hardly notice it.

Provided that you’ve mastered your breathing cycle and all the techniques that go with it, you should have no issues breathing through your mouth alone once you get the hang of it.

Having said that, there are masks out there that let drivers through their mouths and noses. They are called full-face scuba masks and are quite rare in the diving community. 

These masks incorporate the regulator into the mask itself, which allows divers to communicate underwater instead of using hand signals. Needless to say, these masks are quite expensive to purchase and rather costly to maintain.

All Things Considered

It is fairly obvious that diving isn’t for everyone, and that if you’re going to have a good time scuba diving, then you’ll have to master your breathing techniques and everything that goes along with them.

One thing you simply cannot do as a diver is to rely on equipment alone. As good as your gear might be, it will never substitute a good diving technique. Ask any dive master worth his salt and they’ll confirm it.

There are, of course, risk factors associated with diving, as is the case with most water sports, but when push comes to shove, your training and preparation are the only things that will see you through the day and ensure that you have a great time doing it.

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