Hypothermia is way more dangerous than most people think. However, many of the deaths and accidents that occur every year can actually be prevented. By teaching people how to handle hypothermia, we easily improve these numbers.
If you’re new to the word, then hypothermia means then the body temperature has dropped so much that the body’s normal functions start shutting down. The risk for hypothermia varies depending on the location and season. But the risk is always there and higher in some areas of the world. This is something many people have no idea about.
How does hypothermia manifest itself?
A person who gets too cold starts gradually loses the ability to think clearly and he/she may therefore find it difficult to understand that he/she is in need of aid. Therefore, learn to recognize certain signs of hypothermia!
When the core temperature drops below +35°C (96°F), the body will try to raise the temperature by shaking/shivering. Then the heart rate can increase and breathing becomes faster. What is first noticed is fatigue, silence, a bad mood, and an affected judgment, but also poorer coordination skills. At even lower body temperature, anxiety and apathy (absence of emotion) are likely to show up. This can later turn into hallucinations.
At about +33°C(91.5°F), the body actually stops shivering. Then the breathing will also be more shallow and the heart rate will be lowered. At this stage, the person isn’t far from becoming unconscious. This is because the body at these temperatures begins to down-regulate its functions. Metabolism decreases and the body consumes less oxygen. After a while, breathing stops.
What you should do
- Move the person away from the cold. When it is not possible to get indoors, the person should be protected from the weather and wind. Also, do not forget that most of the cold comes from the ground. Add extra clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, and such to prevent further heat loss.
- If the person is unconscious, they should be placed in a stable side position (see video). If the person is conscious, he or she can lie down on his or her back.
- Replace wet clothes with dry ones if possible. But do not give away more of your own than you are sure you can spare.
- If the person is able to drink by themselves, you can give a hot sweet drink.
- Active heating can take place if the person is only slightly cooled but should be done slowly. Suitable via armpits and crotch with the help of e.g. hot bags or bottles filled with hot water.
- Check consciousness, breathing, and heart rate for one minute. It is important to be very careful at this stage as heart rate and respiration can be very weak. If there is no breathing, start CPR.
What you SHOULD NOT do
- Do not heat a severely chilled person too quickly. Avoid using hot water in the shower, heat lamps, and sauna.
- Do not heat the limbs first. It can lead to cold blood rushing back to the heart, lungs, and brain. Which can lower the body temperature even further but also affect the heart rhythm.
- Do not massage or rub heat into the person.
- Do not give alcohol to the victim.
How to prevent hypothermia
The most important thing you can do is to be properly prepared. This refers to both equipment and knowledge. This is especially important for outdoor practitioners who regularly move close to water. For example, paddlers. Water dissipates body heat 25 times faster than air. So ending up in the water can be life-threatening.
Those who move close to water should therefore regularly train their breathing and participate in supervised ice training. You only have just over ten minutes in cold water. Then the hands and fingers become unusable. And after half an hour you’re probably unconscious.
You should also make sure to pack dry clothes, a hat, maybe a blanket, and the possibility of warmth. This can be equipped for quickly setting a fire, heat bags, or hot water in a thermos. Also, make sure you have a good idea of the ice conditions and the upcoming weather.
Do not forget to call for help if you meet a severely chilled person. Professional care is in many cases vital for hypothermia. Even when the person in question is conscious, this may be necessary. Especially if the person has started to show signs of apathy or confusion. So do not take a chance. Alarm for help!