You don’t have to be immersed in frigid water to be hypothermic. The body always loses some heat when it is in contact with water. Hypothermia is caused by immersing or soaking in water for long periods of time. Cold weather can also induce hypothermia, especially if the person is wearing wet clothes. Without proper treatment, hypothermia can cause permanent damage to the body, and even death.
What is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia occurs when you lose more heat than your body can replace. How fast hypothermia develops in each person depends on that person’s body and the situation. The normal internal body temperature is around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If that temperature drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the person can be considered hypothermic.
Watch Out for the Umbles: Hypothermia Symptoms
In the United States, about 700 people die each year because of hypothermia. The condition usually develops faster when the person is immersed in water than when he is exposed to cool air. Whatever the cause though, you must always watch out for symptoms of hypothermia when you’re outdoors. Common symptoms of hypothermia are called the “umbles,” which include:
The hypothermic person may not even be aware of these changes in his body because his mind is already impaired by the cold. Older people and young children are also in greater risk of hypothermia, so they should be closely observed in cold weather. Other symptoms of hypothermia are as follows:
- Coldness and paleness
- Slurred and incoherent speech
- Fatigue and apathy
- Irregular or slow breathing
First Aid For Hypothermia
First aid must be immediately administered to hypothermic people to avoid serious complications or death. The chances of survival decrease as the environment gets colder; for example, a person immersed in water with a temperature of 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit can survive for three hours or more; while a person immersed in water with a temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit will only last for about 15 minutes.
Follow this step-by-step guide to save a hypothermic person from further damage until medical professionals arrive:
Step 1: Check the person’s pulse and breathing. A hypothermic person’s heartbeat may be very slow and weak, so check the pulse for at least a minute before doing anything else. If the person is unconscious, and his breathing is shallow or has completely stopped, call the emergency hotline, and begin doing cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR.
Step 2: If the person is wearing wet clothing, remove it and replace it with something dry. Remember to cover his head because a lot of heat is lost through the head. Don’t move him too much because hypothermic people are in great risk of cardiac arrest. In addition, you shouldn’t rub or massage his limbs because this will force cold blood into his heart. You can cut his clothing if it can’t be removed without moving his body too much.
Step 3: Move the person to a warmer place as quickly as possible. If you can’t move the person, shield him from the cold as best you can.
Step 4: Cover the ground with a thick blanket to protect the person from the cold. Lay him face up, but handle him very carefully. You may place him on a sleeping bag and cover him with additional blankets. Don’t apply direct heat from a heating pad or heating lamp to the person, because this will send cold blood to his lungs, brain, and heart, leading to cardiac arrest.
Step 5: If the person has severe hypothermia, you’ve got to share your body heat with him by removing your clothes and lying directly next to him. There should be skin-to-skin contact so heat can be shared quickly. Cover yourselves with a blanket to prevent further heat loss.
Step 6: Provide a warm beverage to the person if he’s conscious or able to drink. Any warm beverage will do, except alcohol and caffeinated drinks.
Step 7: Wait for medical professionals to arrive while continuing to relay the situation over the rescue hotline.
Medical Treatment for Hypothermia
The doctor’s main task is to increase the internal or core temperature of the person to get rid of hypothermia. The procedure usually proceeds as follows:
Step 1: The doctor checks the person’s breathing and pulse. If the patient doesn’t have a pulse, he will start chest compressions. Thiamine will be administered if he doesn’t respond to chest compressions, and the doctor will check his blood sugar to make sure it’s not low.
Step 2: If the cardiac monitor shows that the patient’s heart is very weak, the doctor uses two paddles to apply electricity to his chest. He may do this for up to three times, and repeat them occasionally as the patient’s temperature increases.
Step 3: The doctor puts a tube into the patient’s stomach by inserting it through his nose. He then inserts a catheter into his bladder to monitor the urine’s condition. Warm fluids are sent through the intravenous line, treating the dehydration that usually comes with hypothermia. The rewarming process can be done in three ways: passive external rewarming, active external rewarming, and active core rewarming.
- Active core rewarming or ACR: ACR is currently the most effective way to increase the patient’s internal temperature rapidly. It’s employed by doctors when the patient’s heart is unstable, when his temperature is below 89.9 degrees Fahrenheit, and when he’s rewarming too slowly.
- Passive external rewarming or PER: This method is usually used for mild cases of hypothermia. The patient must be able to produce enough heat for PER to be effective. He is placed in a warm environment and covered with sufficient insulation. His internal temperature should climb a few degrees each hour through PER.
- Active external rewarming or AER: AER is very risky because it involves applying heat to the skin, which could potentially force cold blood to the patient’s heart. Whenever this method is used by doctors, it is only applied on the torso, because trapped cold blood in the patient’s limbs is very dangerous.
How to Prevent Hypothermia
People usually get hypothermia when they go out hiking, camping, or fishing outdoors. Some of them get lost in the wild, while others lack the proper equipment and knowledge to stay warm. Here are some tips to prevent hypothermia when you’re out in the cold.
- Wear protective clothing: Much of the heat in your body is lost through your head, so always wear a hat when going outside. Choose mittens over gloves for your hand insulation because they allow your fingers to remain in contact with one another. Cover your whole body, including your face and neck, to reduce heat loss.
- Don’t sweat: Heat is lost through the evaporation of sweat from your skin, which is why you feel cool when you’re sweaty. Sweating in cold weather is dangerous though, because it worsens hypothermia. As much as possible, avoid doing strenuous activities to keep your body warm and dry.
- Bring emergency supplies: There’s not much you can do when you’re stranded in your car in cold weather, except to call for help and wait until emergency medical services arrive. Always bring emergency supplies such as crackers, granola bars, blankets, candles, and matches in case you have to wait a long time before help arrives. Also, don’t forget to bring your cell phone and extra batteries, so you can always call for help.
Hypothermia occurs more rapidly when you’re immersed in cold water. Follow these tips to stay alive until help comes.
- Wear your life jacket: Always wear a life jacket when you’re riding a boat or any watercraft. The life jacket increases your chances of survival by allowing you to float and providing insulation.
- Don’t move: Panicking won’t help you, and you’ll just make unnecessary movements that spend energy and heat. As much as possible, don’t move and relax to keep your body warm.
- Use HELP: The Heat Escape Lessening Position or HELP reduces heat loss by keeping your limbs and torso in close contact with one other. Position your knees together, and hug them close to your chest using your arms. If you have a life jacket on, keep your legs together, and then position your arms to the sides and your back. In addition, if you fell in the water as a group, face other people in a tight circle to further reduce heat loss.
- Don’t take off your clothing: On land, removing wet clothes helps prevent hypothermia, but in cold water, it is the opposite. Do not remove your clothing when you’re immersed in water, because the water between your body and clothing can be warmed up and prevent hypothermia.
- Don’t swim if you’re far from land: There’s no point in swimming if you’re far from land, as you’ll only lose precious heat and energy quicker. Stay put and wait for the emergency medical services to arrive, since they are your only hope for survival.
Hypothermia can be avoided if you have the proper knowledge and equipment to counter it. Whatever happens, stay cool when you’re facing hypothermia to make the best decisions that can save your life.