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.
The most common cause of hypothermia 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 getting hypothermia. People who sleep directly on the ground put themselves at risk for rapid heat loss and eventual hypothermia as well.
The risk increases in certain groups of people, too. 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
According to WebMD, hypothermia can be categorized as mild, moderate, and severe, and 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:
- 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 hypothermia advances, the worse the symptoms get.
Shivering is a sign that your body is trying to combat the cold; in moderate to severe cases of hypothermia, however, the body can stop shivering altogether. The person may also experience an event called paradoxical undressing, where they actually 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.
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.
Hypothermia is life-threatening so early detection is important. Once you determine that a person is experiencing hypothermia, promptly call for medical help and do the following 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 dry, warm location.
- Carefully remove any wet articles of clothing. Do this slowly and carefully 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 a cardiac arrest as well. Instead, slowly increase a person’s temperature by providing warm and dry clothes and blankets. Wool is a good insulator and can help a person retain body heat better than other fabrics. Using 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. Instead, try to give the person warm, high-calorie drinks like hot chocolate or broth. 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 compress to the extremities causes cold blood to go to the main organs. This can cause the core temperature to drop instead.
As always, prevention is way better than cure. Medical professionals use the acronym COLD for hypothermia prevention. 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, make sure to change into warm and dry clothing immediately.
Hypothermia doesn’t just happen in the movies.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recorded more than 16,000 American deaths due to hypothermia from 1999 to 2010 alone. The good thing is you don’t have to end up like how Leo DiCaprio did in Titanic. Always keep a calm mind and remember how the body reacts to cold. With proper knowledge, preparation, and skills, you can easily combat and prevent hypothermia.