Whether you’ve spent too much time dashing through the snow or you are stranded in your car during a freak storm, knowing how to prevent and treat hypothermia is essential.
What Causes Hypothermia
You may be surprised to learn that hypothermia isn’t just a cold weather condition. Even in the summer, if you are in the water for too long (in a boating accident or scuba diving, for example) you can become hypothermic. In fact, cold water, even if the outside air is warm, can cause you to become hypothermic faster than being on land.
Alcohol increases the risk of hypothermia because it increases the body’s blood flow to the skin and extremities, causing a person to lose heat faster, even though they may feel warm.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
Any time your core body temperature gets below 95 degrees F, you are considered hypothermic. Early symptoms include shivering, confusion and hypoglycemia. As it worsens, the victim may start to shiver more violently, and show a lack of muscle coordination. Movements may appear slow and labored and the victim may stumble around. Pale skin along with blue lips, fingers, ears and toes are other symptoms to watch for.
As hypothermia becomes more severe, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure decrease. The person affected will have trouble speaking and thinking, may experience amnesia and will seem to get even more clumsy with an inability to use their hands.
In infants, hypothermia can be recognized by bright red, cold skin as well as very low energy.
As soon as you start to see symptoms of hypothermia, you should take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95 degrees, seek medical help immediately. If you cannot get medical help, you should begin the rewarming process on your own, following these steps:
1. Get the victim to shelter or into a warm room.
2. Remove wet clothing if applicable.
3. Begin warming the core (chest, head, neck, groin) with an electric blanket if possible. Another option is skin to skin contact under a loose covering – blankets, towels, etc.
4. If the patient is conscious, give them a warm beverage to warm them from the inside out. Do not give them any type of alcohol.
5. Even as the body’s temperature increases, the patient should be kept covered, including the head and neck. Medical attention should be a priority as soon as possible.
If a person seems to be unconscious, or even dead, you should still attempt CPR. Keep in mind, as the body gets colder it will begin to shut down to conserve energy. Proceed with rewarming the victim while CPR is being provided and seek medical help as soon as possible. It may be possible to resuscitate the victim.
Hypothermia can be prevented by wearing weather-appropriate clothing and avoiding alcohol if you are going to be outdoors in the cold or out on your boat for the day. Even in warm weather, have a way to cover up if you get chilled swimming in cold water.
A hat, scarf and mittens in cold weather will help prevent heat loss from your body. You should also prevent sweating by not overexerting yourself. Sweaty clothing in cold weather will cause you to lose body heat faster. Staying dry is essential.
Wear loose-fitting layers so you can add or remove clothing as necessary to stay comfortable. Wind and water repellant outer layers, combined with wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers will do the best job of holding in body heat.
Small children should have one more layer than adults and should come inside often to warm themselves. Limit their time outdoors when it is very cold.
Make sure your car is stocked with your emergency kit, including several blankets, extra clothing, first aid kit, emergency food and water, and a cell phone. If you become stranded, run the car for 10 minutes out of every hour, making sure the windows are cracked slightly. Be sure the exhaust pipe isn’t covered in snow.
And finally, if someone you know needs help keeping their home warm in the winter, contact your public health office or social services agency to see what aid is available to help them stay warm and safe in the cold winter months. Even bringing them some extra blankets and checking in on them periodically can save a life.