Hypothermia First Aid: How to Fight the Extreme Cold

Ever seen those Mount Everest expedition movies? You know, the ones where a group of climbers prepare to conquer the Earth’s highest peak, only to encounter a blizzard?

How about Titanic?

Surely, you’ve seen young Leonardo DiCaprio shivering for his life while Kate Winslet lies atop some debris, begging him to “hold on” while dramatic music plays in the background.

What do these movies have in common—besides glamorous actors, high-adrenaline scenes, and blockbuster effects?

Someone always dies from the cold.

That’s a sobering thought because it’s not some Hollywood magic anymore; it’s a real-life threat. Exposure to extreme cold can happen to anyone. Prepper or not, you must know some hypothermia first aid or how to prevent it in the first place.

What Is Hypothermia?

The body needs to maintain a temperature of around 98 F (37 C) to keep functioning. Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below 95 F (35 C). In this event, your body lets go of more heat than it can retain or absorb.

Causes

man in winter clothing standing near a tree while it's snowing

Before we get into hypothermia first aid measures, you gotta know what causes it in the first place. This is the best way to prevent hypothermia. 

The most common cause is prolonged exposure to low temperatures. This happens when you go out in cold weather without appropriate protection or clothing. But that’s not the only cause of hypothermia. You can also get it in a situation where you can’t produce enough heat or where you lose heat rapidly.

Yup, you can get hypothermia even in high summer.

Take a boating excursion, for example. When you fall off the boat and fail to change into dry clothes immediately, you’re putting yourself at risk for hypothermia.

Or when you go hiking up a mountain wearing light clothing and not anticipating the drop in temperature as you ascend, again you risk catching cold. People who sleep directly on the ground also put themselves at risk for rapid heat loss and eventual hypothermia.

The risk increases in certain groups of people. The very young and the very old often have trouble controlling their body’s thermostats§. People with medical conditions like low blood sugar, anorexia, and hypothyroidism are also less tolerant to cold and are susceptible to rapid heat loss.

Signs and Symptoms

knowing hypothermia first aid can help you prevent the symptoms from getting worse

According to WebMD, hypothermia can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe. You can classify them as such based on the person’s body temperature:

  • Mild hypothermia: 89-95 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Moderate hypothermia: 82-89 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Severe hypothermia: Lower than 82 degrees Fahrenheit

Depending on the type of hypothermia, the Mayo Clinic says these are the signs you will notice and the symptoms you will be experiencing:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bright red, cold skin (in infants)

The further the condition advances, the worse the symptoms get and the harder it will be to perform hypothermia first aid.

Shivering is a sign that your body is trying to combat the cold. However, in moderate to severe cases of hypothermia, the body can stop shivering altogether. The person may also experience an event called paradoxical undressing, where they take off their clothes instead of putting on more layers.

This is caused by increased confusion brought on by the cold. In this event, the person loses more heat, experiences cardiac arrest, and dies. This accounts for as much as 20-50% of hypothermia-related deaths.

Complications

an icy surface

Aside from the symptoms mentioned above, severe hypothermia can also cause complications like frostbite, where the cold damages the skin and underlying tissues. Much like a burn injury, frostbite is classified by EMedicineHealth as follows:

  • Frostnip or first-degree frostbite – superficial and reversible but may cause significant pain when the extremity rewarms.
  • Second-degree frostbite – characterized by blisters that form a few hours to a day after injury and signifies deeper tissue damage.
  • Third-degree frostbite – extensive skin damage all the way to the underlying tissue. Skin appears black.
  • Fourth-degree frostbite – bone and tendon freeze. 

Basic Hypothermia First Aid 

Hypothermia is life-threatening, so early detection is important. Once you determine that a person is experiencing it, promptly call for medical help and do the following hypothermia first aid measures:

  • If you are outdoors, do your best to prevent further heat loss. Shield them from snow or wind. Do not allow the person to lie directly on the ground.
  • Remove the person from the cold environment. Move to a warm, dry location.
  • Carefully remove any wet articles of clothing. Do this slowly to avoid triggering erratic heartbeats that might cause a heart attack. 
  • Do not attempt to expose the person to direct heat. This can damage the skin or trigger cardiac arrest. Instead, the proper way to treat hypothermia is to slowly increase their temperature by providing warm clothes and blankets. Wool is a good insulator and can help someone retain body heat better than other fabrics. A space blanket also helps.
  • Provide warm drinks to increase their temperature from the inside. However, don’t give them alcohol. Contrary to popular belief, alcoholic drinks only offer temporary relief from the cold. They do nothing to increase your core temperature. Try giving the person warm, high-calorie drinks like hot chocolate or broth instead. Only attempt this if the person is conscious. Forcing liquid into an unconscious person’s mouth may lead to choking.
  • Apply a warm and dry compress to the person’s neck, chest, or groin and work your way from there. Applying a compress to the extremities causes cold blood to go to the main organs. This can cause the core temperature to drop instead.

How to Prevent Hypothermia

The best way to prevent hypothermia is to follow the acronym COLD used by medical professionals. It stands for:

  • Cover. Use protective clothing like hats and mittens to prevent heat from escaping your body. Observe the weather as well. Knowing the weather forecast can let you prepare your clothes and gear accordingly.
  • Overexertion. Avoid activities that will cause you to sweat. This lowers your body temperature even further. To help increase your core temperature, consume high-calorie, high-protein food and drinks. Again, avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Layers. Stack on your layers and dress appropriately. Wearing the right clothing protects you from low temperatures by preventing heat from escaping your body. Use thermal clothes for your base. Stay away from cotton and, instead, stick to fabrics with great wicking capabilities.
  • Dry. Avoid getting wet. If you do get wet, change into warm and dry clothing immediately.

Final Thoughts

Hypothermia doesn’t just happen in the movies.

The Centers for Disease Control recorded more than 16,000 American deaths from 1999 to 2010 alone due to it. The good thing is, if you know how to prevent hypothermia, you don’t have to end up like how Leo DiCaprio did in Titanic.

You can easily avoid hypothermia with proper knowledge, preparation, and skills. And if you do catch it, the hypothermia first aid procedures we shared will be life-saving.  

We hope you liked this article on hypothermia first aid and prevention. If you want more preparedness tips and tricks, check out our other posts!

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