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#ALSIceBucketChallenge: How did it start—and is it safe?

August 13, 2014

    Clare Rizer, Daily Briefing

    Here at the Daily Briefing, we are committed to covering health topics both large and small—and one trend sweeping the globe has us (and everyone else) abuzz: The #ALSIceBucketChallenge.

    What is the #ALSIceBucketChallenge?

    On Facebook, Twitter, or even TV, you've likely seen videos of friends dumping buckets of ice water on their heads, all in the name of spreading awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

    The challenge was started by friends of former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012, and involves either donating money to ALS research or dumping a bucket of ice water on your head within 24 hours of receiving the challenge. The idea is to keep the cycle going and encourage other friends to accept the challenge or make a donation.

    It has become a phenomenon. Just this week, Ethel Kennedy took the challenge and then issued it to President Obama. (He says he will be making a donation to the charity.)

    The challenge has been a donation boon. From July 29 to Aug. 11, the ALS Association received $1.35 million in donations. (That's compared to $22,000 received over the same time period last year.)

    Another Web sensation: Everybody (Pink Glove) dance now


    Is the #ALSIceBucketChallenge safe?

    Although the idea behind the hashtag challenge is noble and effective, it had us at the Daily Briefing wondering: Is it safe?

    'Polar vortex' sends frost-bitten Americans to area hospitals

    A lot has been written about the health risks of other extreme-cold challenges, like polar plunges and cold water challenges.

    According to Thomas Nuckton, a physician at the University of California-San Francisco and the California Pacific Medical Center, swimmers who complete long distances in colder water can face an increased risk of hypothermia—which is not inherently dangerous, but can make a swimmer sluggish or disoriented and impact his or her ability to make it back to shore.

    More alarmingly, plunging into ice cold water can put pressure on the heart, Nuckton says. There have been some cases of Polar Plunge swimmers experiencing heart attacks or dying from "cold shock" after entering freezing water. In a 2013 interview with TIME's "Healthland," Thomas Traill, a cardiologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, noted that people's muscles can become paralyzed from the cold and shut down even just a few feet from shore.

    Authorities in Camden Township, Minnesota, say that a 16-year-old boy drowned when he jumped into a lake as part of a "Cold Water Challenge" earlier this year. The popular challenge—which involved jumping into an icy body of water—was intended to raise money for cancer charities. In some states, authorizes are warning parents and children to avoid diving into frigid or fast-moving waters.

    But these are more extreme challenges than the Ice Bucket Challenge, which involves just a brief splash of very cold water. When I asked Traill about the Ice Bucket Challenge, he said quite plainly, "It's safe."

    Doctors' tips for surviving record-breaking cold weather

    (Nonetheless, I think I'll stick with hot showers. And donate to the ALS Association, of course.)

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