Should You Scuba Dive With a Cold?

Should You Scuba Dive With a Cold?

You should avoid Scuba Diving with a cold because it causes your sinuses to become congested which causes issues with equalizing your ears, and it also increases the chances of you suffering from ear barotrauma and decompression sickness. 

So, you’ve been counting down the days to that Scuba Diving Trip of a lifetime, you have your bags packed, maybe your favourite Scuba Diving equipment ready to go, and your dreams are starting to become reality as you board that flight. 

But then, you’ve been crammed into a plane like a bunch of sardines, breathing in all those germs, and all of a sudden you start to feel the early signs of a cold. 

Your body becomes achy, your eyes start watering, the sneezes have started, and the dreaded sniffles! 

As your symptoms get progressively worse, you come to question whether you can cope with a whole day of scuba diving. So, you ask yourself, will scuba diving with a cold make your symptoms worse, and can it be dangerous if you scuba dive with a cold?

To look at why Scuba Diving with a cold is a bad idea, we will cover the following points in this article:

  • Can it be dangerous to Scuba Dive with a cold?
  • Difficulty breathing underwater
  • Unable to equalize when Scuba Diving
  • Reverse Squeeze
  • When should you not Scuba Dive with a cold?
  • Can you take decongestants when Scuba Diving?
  • Scuba Diving tips when scuba diving with a mild cold

Can It Be Dangerous to Scuba Dive With a Cold?

You guessed it, Scuba Diving with a cold can be dangerous. Because of the symptoms associated with a common cold, you may have difficulty breathing, be unable to equalize your ears, and suffer from a reverse squeeze – OUCH! 

You are likely already aware of the horrible feeling of a cold: a runny nose, sore throat, headache congestion, fever, coughing, and uncontrollable sneezing. 

Imagining those symptoms, you can probably guess why it is not a good idea to Scuba Dive with a cold.  

Trying to control sneezes, coughing, and a runny nose underwater is no fun, particularly in all your Scuba Diving equipment. While these symptoms should not be ignored, it is congestion that makes scuba diving with a cold dangerous.

Difficulty Breathing Underwater

When suffering from a cold, you can have difficulties breathing! This is counterintuitive with the most important rule of Scuba Diving (other than having fun of course!)… never hold your breath!

If you are suffering from a cold, you already know the struggles of breathing, as your body becomes a mucus machine.

This mucus can easily block your airways, causing laboured breathing.

As your sinuses continue to become congested, they swell which restricts your normal breathing pattern, making it difficult to take slow deep breaths, both crucial to getting sufficient airflow through your regulator

If you thought that was the only danger, wait, as there’s more…

Unable to Equalize When Scuba Diving 

Not only may you have difficulty breathing if you Scuba Dive with a cold, but you are probably going to find equalizing a problem. If you are unable to equalize, you may experience a sinus squeeze, which is incredibly painful. 

A sinus squeeze, what is that, you say? Don’t worry, I’m here to tell you…

A sinus squeeze is when you descend and struggle to equalize the pressure between your sinuses and the surrounding environment underwater. If this happens, an abort mission is usually on the cards!

Dr Petar Denoble from Divers Alert Network (DAN) says: “A cold causes congestion of upper respiratory pathways, which may block Eustachian tubes and sinus openings. This prevents the equalization of pressure in the middle ears and sinuses.

If you keep pushing yourself to equalize underwater, the build-up of pressure inside your middle ear can lead to an ear barotrauma injury, such as a ruptured eardrum. 

If you get a few feet underwater and realise you cannot equalize, hand signal to your dive buddy to let them know what’s going on and return to the surface.

I know that’s a lot to take in, but bear with me…

Reverse Squeeze 

A reverse squeeze is when you can equalize during your descent, but on the way up, equalizing becomes impossible. I know what you’re thinking, why is this an issue?

Experiencing a reverse sinus squeeze when scuba diving is a serious concern, not to be ignored.

Well, when you start to ascend, and you cannot equalise, you must stop at that depth until you can. If you are diving fairly deep, let’s say 18 m (60 ft), your air is going to run out much faster and more nitrogen will be absorbed in your body, increasing the chances of decompression sickness. 

If you still cannot equalize during your ascent, you are going to feel what a barotrauma injury feels like because you cannot stay underwater all day – you will have to surface before your air runs out.

You will probably also experience decompression sickness, as now time is not on your side, so you will not be able to make any deco stops. 

This whole experience is terrifying, and if it’s not obvious yet, this scenario can result in a serious casualty – death. 

So, jump in, see if you can equalize, and if you cannot, skip the dive, you will thank me later!

When Should You Not Scuba Dive With a Cold?

You should avoid Scuba Diving if you are too congested to breathe through each nostril, are constantly blowing your nose, you cannot equalize on land, you are still showing symptoms of a cold such as a fever, cough, or an aching body. 

If you answer yes to the following, it is best to skip the dive!

Don’t ever force a dive when you are not feeling 100%! Simply reschedule it for another day. You don’t want to encounter a scuba diving accident!

Before Scuba Diving, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are both your nostrils blocked?
  • Have you suffered from a fever/temperature/chills in the last 24 hours?
  • Have you blown your nose in the last 2 hours?
  • Is equalizing your ears out of the water still difficult?
  • Does your body still feel tired or achy?
  • Have you coughed in the last 2 hours?

Can You Take Decongestants When Scuba Diving?

Decongestant medication can help some people to relieve the symptoms of a cold, however, it is still not recommended to Scuba Dive. These tablets may make you feel drowsy underwater, leading to more serious scuba diving injuries. 

After reading all the risks of Scuba Diving with a cold, you still have one ray of hope, cold and flu medication, because that makes everything better, right?

While taking decongestants like cold and flu tablets may relieve your symptoms, you may be faced with a few complications down the line.

These complications can include:

  • Cold medication can make you feel a little ‘woozy’ underwater.
  • You may experience nitrogen narcosis. 
  • The medication could wear off during the dive or during your surface interval.

5 Scuba Diving Tips When Scuba Diving With a Mild Cold

It all boils down to this… If your symptoms are very mild or if your doctor has said your symptoms are mild enough to go Scuba Diving, you’re in the clear!

However, even though you may feel up to it, you should follow some extra precautions, just to be on the safe side. 

  1. Always descend slowly, remembering to equalize your ears. 
  2. Use an anchor line if possible to control your descent.
  3. Do not dive too deep, and once you have reached your desired depth, try to avoid going up and down like a yo-yo. 
  4. Ascend slowly.
  5. If you feel a reverse block on the way, stop your ascent to allow the air to escape slowly. 

Don’t Forget Your Dive Insurance!

Before you go out on any dive trip or holiday, it is essential to make sure you have insurance that covers you if something goes wrong. Check out our dive insurance article for more information.

Or go straight to these dive insurance company websites:


Diver Alert Network (DAN)

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Final Thoughts

Scuba diving with a cold is not recommended because it can be dangerous. 

If you ignore the signs and continue to Scuba Dive with a cold, you may have difficulty breathing, have issues with equalizing, and end up with a reverse squeeze, barotrauma injury, or decompression sickness.

If you feel unwell, it is best to sit out the dive this time and reschedule it for another day. 

If you have tried everything and your symptoms are still not going away, consider visiting the doctor to check if it is flu or something more serious. 

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Darby Bonner

Darby is a marine biologist and PADI scuba diving instructor from the UK. With over ten years of diving experience, she has visited some of the best dive destinations in the world. Currently, Darby is living in Bali, Indonesia and regularly dives at some of the most beautiful dive sites in the Indian Ocean. Her passion for the ocean led her to study seals, publish a paper, and become a marine mammal medic. In the future, she hopes to complete her master’s in marine science, and of course, continue her love for teaching and diving!

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