Hypothermia — A cold killer

With the onset of winter comes the threat of hypothermia — the dangerous lowering of the human body’s temperature.

As the number one killer of outdoor enthusiasts, everyone should understand the circumstances under which hypothermia occurs and its symptoms.

Mild weather

Surprisingly, however, hypothermia can occur even during relatively mild weather.

In fact, most cases of hypothermia develop when the thermometer reads between 30 and 50 degrees.

And often hypothermia is more an urban phenomenon than one of the wilderness.

Indigent senior citizens who live in poorly heated homes may experience hypothermia at air temperatures of 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Very young children are equally susceptible to dangerous chilling. That’s why we get two-hour school delays on extremely frigid mornings.

And reports of homeless alcoholics dying in drunken stupors are all too common. In such cases, hypothermia can be the hidden killer.

Quickest route

Immersion in water is the quickest route to hypothermia. A person in icy water might last 10 to 15 minutes before passing out and drowning.

But even 50 degree water is unbearably cold, and prolonged immersion in sub-70 degree water will eventually take its toll.

Boaters and fishermen, take heed. Many outdoorsmen refuse to believe such seemingly mild conditions can be life threatening. Believe it.

This is one case where experience can be a deadly teacher. The first defense against hypothermia is understanding how cold affects the body.

Recognize symptoms

Learn to recognize the symptoms. Here’s what to expect if your body temperature dropped below normal.

First, you’d feel cold and voluntarily exercise to stay warm. You might rub your hands together or run in place.

Then you’d begin to shiver, first mildly, then uncontrollably. Within minutes, you’d be helpless.

Your speech would slur, your memory would fail, you might hallucinate, you’d lose the use of your hands and you’d find it difficult to walk.

Finally, you would get drowsy, collapse and die.

Be prepared

If you understand the seriousness of hypothermia and are prepared for it, you can avoid becoming a statistic.

The best treatment for hypothermia is prevention — avoid exposure. Stay dry. Carry rain gear. Wet clothing loses 90 percent of its insulating value and leads quickly to hypothermia.

Wool retains more of its insulating ability when wet than other materials, so make it your winter fabric of choice.

If you get wet, stay out of the wind. Even a slight breeze carries heat away from the skin much faster than still air.

Psychological

One of the biggest obstacles we face is psychological. The critical step is to recognize a dangerous situation and deal with it.

If you find yourself in a potentially hypothermic situation, here’s what to do.

Anytime you’re wet and/or cold, terminate the exposure. Get back to the house, cabin, car or camp.

If you’re too far from shelter (and in a hypothermic state 100 yards can be too far), get out of the wind and rain and build a fire.

If you’ve already started shivering, build the fire immediately. After you enter the violent shiver stage you’ll be unable to help yourself.

A fire is your friend and salvation, so always carry waterproof matches.

Treat the symptoms

If you’re with a friend suffering from hypothermia, treat the symptoms, regardless what the victim says.

Often a hypothermic victim denies he’s in trouble. Get him out of the wind and rain. Take off all his wet clothes.

If the victim is conscious and coherent, give him warm fluids, get him into dry clothes and wrap him in a warm sleeping bag. Then get him to a doctor.

If the victim is losing consciousness, his condition is critical and requires immediate emergency attention.

Get him to a hospital, warming him enroute.

If that’s impossible, try to keep the victim awake and give him warm fluids.

Meanwhile, get the unclothed victim into a sleeping bag with another unclothed person. Skin to skin contact is the most effective emergency treatment of serious hypothermia.

Prevention is best

Remember, though, prevention is the best treatment. Anticipating disasters is the best way to avoid them.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

Leave a Comment

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.

eNewsletter

Get our Top Stories in Your Inbox

Services

Recent News