Skip to main content

Scuba divers

Scuba divers
Click to enlarge

What health problems affect scuba divers?

The chances are that if you’re booking a diving trip you’ll already be well versed in the health issues surrounding the sport. But diving in a new country can bring different risks and whether you’re a veteran diver, a keen amateur or are hoping to try it out for the first time during your holiday, it’s useful to get some professional diving health advice. One of the best resources for this is the UK Diving Medical Committee.

Fit to dive

Make sure you’re fit to dive as it can put a lot of strain on your body. Always consider your cardiac health before diving and get any concerns checked out by a medical professional. Diving is not recommended if you are pregnant or if you suffer from severe forms of:

  • epilepsy
  • lung problems, including severe asthma and emphysema
  • heart disease
  • neurological problems, including MS, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease
  • perforated eardrum

If you’re in any doubt, check with a healthcare professional before you book your trip as there are complicated medical forms to fill in before you are permitted to enter the water. If you’re taking medication for an existing condition, check with your doctor first. Some medications cause side effects that can put a scuba diver at risk.

Problems caused by diving

It’s unlikely that you’ll experience any of these but some of the potential risks are:

  • decompression illness
  • ear barotrauma
  • injuries caused by marine hazards
  • hypothermia

One of the most common problems, especially among novice divers, is ear barotrauma which occurs when you fail to equalise the pressure in your ears properly. Learn and practise the proper equalisation techniques and if you cannot equalise, do not continue your descent. If you suffer vertigo, ear pain or ringing ears while diving, get medical help.

The most dreaded health risk linked to diving is decompression illness, sometimes called ‘the bends’. This results from a reduction in the ambient pressure surrounding the body and can happen when you’re surfacing after a dive. It can strike at random but risk factors include air travel too soon after a dive, particularly deep or long dives, very cold water, hard exercise at depth and rapid ascents. The illness encompasses two conditions; decompression sickness and arterial gas embolism.

Symptoms of decompression illness usually present up to 12 hours following a dive and ones to watch for include:

  • tiredness
  • itchy skin
  • joint pain
  • dizziness and ringing in the ears
  • numbness or tingling
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty urinating
  • confusion or amnesia
  • coughing up blood
  • collapse

Divers should seek professional advice about this dangerous condition. The treatment for decompression illness is recompression but a patient should be stabilised at a medical facility first and provided with oxygen. Later the patient may be transferred to the nearest hyperbaric chamber to be recompressed. It’s a good idea to know where the nearest treatment centre is. If it can only be accessed after a long journey, you may wish to adjust your diving plans.

Make sure you have upgraded your travel insurance in relation to scuba diving.

It’s a good idea to book an appointment with a travel nurse for the most up-to-date and detailed information about your destination. Tell your travel health adviser that you will be diving to ensure you are offered a vaccination regime tailored to your needs.