How to Prevent Hypothermia

You don’t have to be in arctic conditions to run the risk of suffering hypothermia, yet we normally skim over that part, therefore not really retaining it to memory. How to prevent hypothermia, what is hypothermia, how to treat hypothermia, what actually happens to the body during hypothermia, all blend together into a neat little file within the mind labeled Don’t get too cold.” Move on to the next subject. The seriousness of hypothermia can not be overstated, as it is the number one cause of death for people lost in the wilderness and suffer exposure to the elements. Let’s explore the condition known as hypothermia and learn how to prevent hypothermia from ruining your day.

Stages of Hypothermia

Clinically speaking, hypothermia is a state of low body temperature. The normal person’s body temperature is 98.6 F (37 C) and in case you are wondering, that’s not by chance. The body is designed to operate within a certain range of temperatures, leave that range, up or down, and the body reacts to compensate, and we normally don’t like the way it does this.

There are stages of hypothermia and the body reacts differently to each stage. It’s important we learn to recognize the symptoms of each stage in order to diagnosis and treat the patient to alleviate the dangers.

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Stage One: Mild Hypothermia (96.8-93 F to 36-35 C)

Most likely the first sign that someone is becoming hypodermic is their inability to control motor functions. They mumble their speech, stumble when walking, fumbles and drops things, grumbles about odd things. These are all signs that develop when the body’s core temperature drops, motor coordination and sense of consciousness.

  1. Shivering

  2. Unable to perform complex motor skills

  3. Vascular constriction to peripheral body parts (fingers & toes)

Stage Two: Moderate Hypodermic ( 35-33 C to 93-91.4 F)

  1. Reduced level of consciousness; trouble understanding instructions or conversation

  2. Loss of motor coordination particularly in the hands; unable to hold onto or grasp items with the fingers

  3. Very slurred speech, acts as if intoxicated or drunk

  4. Can incur violent shivering; unable to stop

  5. Irrational behavior; for some reason the person starts removing their clothing claiming to be too warm yet in actuality being too cold. This is a common occurrence.

Severe Hypothermia: (less than 33-30 C to 91.4-86 F)

Moderate hypothermia can quickly go from moderate to severe and becomes extremely dangerous.

  1. The person will experience shivering in violent waves, then pause, then repeat violent shivers. The pauses between violent shivers will increase in length until they cease all together. Why? Because the body has decided the heat output from burning glycogen in the muscles in order to produce shivering, will not counteract the body’s ever decreasing core temperature.

  2. The person will collapse to the ground and go into a fetal position in order to conserve heat.

  3. The muscles become rigid

  4. The Skin becomes pale

  5. Pulse rate decreases

  6. Pupils will dilate

  7. At 32C (89.6F) the body attempts to go into hibernation, just like a bear, shutting all peripheral blood flow off and reducing breathing and heart rate.

  8. At 30 C (86 F) the body enters a state of a “metabolic icebox” The person appears dead, but is still alive. If treatment is not immediately administered the breathing will become erratic and very shallow, the level of consciousness will continue to diminish and cardiac arrhythmia will occur resulting in death.

Perhaps the more detailed explanation of what hypothermia does will create an interest of learning how to prevent hypothermia.

What Causes Hypothermia?

To know how to prevent hypothermia one must know what causes it, and there are many things that can factor into that. Dressing improperly is a main reason. Dressing in shorts and a light jacket for a 60 degree F afternoon hike which turns into a 30 degree F forced overnight stay, dress in layers. Then there’s the bad luck syndrome, getting caught in a cool climate by a sudden brief downpour, getting drenched with no way to get dry. Then there’s the infamous accident, simply slipping in the mud while fishing and falling into the water. In other words, anyone can be the victim of hypothermia with a bit of bad luck.

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Actions to Avoid

When treating a person experiencing hypothermia it’s just as important to know what not to do for the person as well as what to do. This is where the myths, old wives tales and incorrect treatment is dispelled. This is not the movies or a TV drama, this is reality and potentially life threatening.

Avoid Shock Treatment: Never heat up the patients body too quickly

Our first instinct for treating a person in hypothermia is to warm that person back up as fast as possible, but that is not correct. It took time for the body to alter its functions to deal with the ever decreasing body temperature. Therefore, those exact body alterations must be performed in reverse and that requires some time. Not as long as it took to induce hypothermia, but a reasonable amount of readjustment time.

  1. Never emerge a person into a hot bath,

  2. Never use hot water bottles;

  3. Never use electric blankets unless you closely monitor the temperature settings.

Due the extreme negative conditions the body has endured reaching hypothermia, which weakened its ability to respond, to subject the body to a sudden shock of temperature change could produce a heart attack.

Never give the person alcohol

I realize the movie hero always takes a stiff shot of alcohol in order to shake off the bitter cold, but this is one of those myths to dispel. If the unconscious person could talk they’d tell you the alcohol makes them feel warmer, but a mirage, a dangerous one. It’s true the person will feel warmer because alcohol moves blood to the skin, but at what cost.

Your body is attempting to force all available heat to your core functions in order to keep organs, heart pumping, lungs working, stuff like that, operating. It knows death will result if these functions cease, and it also knows it can live perfectly well without some fingers or toes. Therefore, it forces blood from the extremities to the body core, but introduction of alcohol disrupts this process. In reality, you’re unintentionally trying to kill the person by giving alcohol.

Caution With Food

Some “experts” recommend giving the person high energy bars to eat in order to jump start their metabolism, thus creating internal heat. The problem with this is its not unusual for a person suffering hypothermia to have difficulty swallowing, which could be catastrophic if they should choke on the food item. Ask the person to cough then attempt to swallow. Even if the person can swallow use caution while feeding them, breaking everything into very small bites.

I recommend sticking with warm liquids, soups, teas, hot chocolate, coffee. Urge them to take small sips instead of gulping the drink down. Combining a pure chocolate candy bar, like a Hershey and hot fluids will work in place of the energy bar. The pure chocolate will melt before any real danger results if there is a swallowing problem. Remember; warm the person slowly.

Exercise?

Since exercise creates body heat, shouldn’t you have the person begin exercising as it will help reheat the core body. You are half right. The person should have, if they didn’t, exercise in an attempt to stave off hypothermia, but once it is incurred exercise is a bad option. The loss of critical body heat has resulted in loss of dexterity, poor mental awareness, and clumsiness. These are poor conditions to be exercising in regardless of the intensity level. Added injury from a fall while jogging will only compound the problem. No matter how good the person thinks they feel, there will be residual effects they are unaware of. Bottom line: No exercising.

No time to sleep

Similar to incurring a concussion, the person will experience lethargy, drowsiness and possibly confusion. They will simply want to lay down and go to sleep. You can not allow them to go to sleep! Do whatever is necessary to keep them awake, because if they doze off they may never wake.

Actions to Take on How to Treat Hypothermia

The first thing to do is get the person to a warmer place. That doesn’t necessarily mean a solid structure, a snow cave is much warmer than the outside area. The important issue is to remove them from exposure to the elements that caused the hypothermia as quickly as possible in order for the body to begin to recuperate.

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  1. Seek emergency help ASAP. Whatever you can do they can do better.

  2. Keep the patient awake by whatever means are necessary

  3. Replace wet clothes with dry clothes ASAP. Remove the wet clothes even if you don’t have dry replacements. Cover with a blanket or other warm material

  4. Provide warm liquids, soup, hot tea, hot chocolate etc

  5. As the patient warms and regains their faculties, if available you can give them a warm bath, no hotter than 104 F (40 C) about the temperature of a hot tub.

  6. If outside … start a fire. If possible place the fire next to a rock ledge or outcrop so the rock can absorb the heat and radiate it back out onto the patient as well as the direct heat from the fire.

  7. Again, remove wet clothes, even without dry replacements, vigorously rub the person’s extremities to increase blood circulation. Take your clothes off and spoon using your body heat to help warm the other person.

  8. Cover the person with green boughs or leaf litter, anything to insulate him from the cold.

Additional actions will be available depending on the situation, but the main goal is to remove the person from the elements, remove all wet clothing and re-warm him slowly.

How to Prevent Hypothermia

How to prevent hypothermia is pretty straight forward common sense and a little bit of planning ahead.

  1. Dress not only for the current environment, but the anticipated environment. Pants and a light jacket may be fine when you begin your hike, but you know the temperatures plummet to near freezing after nightfall. Take a heavy coat with you. Tie it around your waist, stuff it into a backpack, but take it with you. Sure you plan on being back before sunset, but ….

  2. Do everything possible to keep from getting wet. Damp clothes, much alone wet ones, against the body causes the body to lose heat in an attempt to evaporate the moisture. This steals vital heat from your core as well as energy.

  3. Should the unthinkable happen, you fall into water and are soaked, or you have sweated so much through exertion your shirt is soaking wet, remove these clothing items and dry them. This is another reason to dress in layers. You can remove the wettest garment and dry it while still wearing the less wet piece of clothing. Or better yet, remove layers if you become too warm preventing them from becoming soaked with sweat.

  4. No choice but to stand naked while your clothes dry over the fire. Do jumping jacks while waiting. They are activity enough to create body heat, yet are not exhausting which would keep you from doing them for an extended time period.

Pay attention to what your body is telling you

Why would you ignore the warnings of your best friend when it comes to how to prevent hypothermia? Your body is your best friend and will give you advance warnings when approaching a danger zone. If you begin to sweat, which your body is saying I’m getting too hot, take some clothes off, a hat will release a ton of heat. Getting too cold, your body is telling you to put on extra clothes, get to moving or start a fire. I need heat. It’s really not rocket science. As with most things in the survival environment preventing hypothermia is much easier than coming back from its effects.

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