Hypothermia is a serious medical condition in which the body’s core temperature drops dangerously low, causing a potentially fatal strain on the heart, brain and other organs. The most common cause of hypothermia is exposure to cold weather or cold water and not being adequately dressed for cold conditions.
Though hypothermia is usually thought of as a condition that only occurs during winter, cold weather conditions and cold water can put a person at risk any time of the year. According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, specific conditions that lead to hypothermia can include wearing clothes that aren’t warm enough for the environment, staying in the cold too long, being wet and unable to remove wet clothes or move to a warmer location, accidental falls into water (boating accident), and inadequate heating in the home (particularly dangerous for infants and the elderly).
Shivering (the body’s first defense against cold)
Loss of coordination and slurred speech
Confusion and poor decision making
Progressive loss of consciousness
Red, cold skin
Oftentimes, a person suffering from hypothermia does not realize the seriousness of their condition because the symptoms come on gradually and the resulting confusion can decrease self-awareness. In the case of infants and the elderly, they may not be able to verbalize their symptoms. If you suspect someone is suffering from hypothermia, seek treatment for them immediately.
Call 911 if you see someone exhibiting symptoms of hypothermia or that you suspect have had prolonged exposure to cold. While you are waiting for emergency personnel, move the person indoors or to a warmer location, if possible. Remove wet clothing and cover the person in blankets.
If you are outdoors, place a blanket between the person and the ground in addition to the blankets you put overtop. You can even share body heat, removing your clothing, providing skin-to-skin contact while covering you both with blankets. Do not place warm compresses on the person’s arms or legs because it can cause a fatal drop in core body temperature by forcing cold blood back to the heart, lungs and brain.
Depending on the extent of hypothermia, medical personnel may use more invasive measures to raise the person’s body temperature. These interventions include blood rewarming with a hemodialysis machine, warm intravenous fluids, airway rewarming, or delivery of a warm saltwater solution to the stomach, bladder or colon.
The easy way to prevent hypothermia is by avoiding cold weather conditions and cold water. However, your family can enjoy cold weather activities, such as playing in the snow, or cold water activities, such as boating, with proper attire and staying warm.
To prevent hypothermia:
In the cold, wear loose fitting light-weight layers of clothing, a water-repellant outer layer, a hat, gloves, socks and insulated, water-repellant boots.
Stay dry and remove wet clothing as soon as possible.
Don’t overexert yourself to the point you are heavily sweating; wet clothing and cold weather can make your body temperature quickly drop.
Limit your exposure to cold weather or cold water.
If you fall in the water, do not remove clothing until you are out and can get warm.
Do not drink alcohol when outdoors in the cold or on the water.
If you do get stuck in cold weather or in cold weather, huddle with other people to stay warm.
Being prepared for cold weather and cold water activities will allow you to enjoy the great outdoors while keeping your family safe from hypothermia.