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Hypothermia is a medical emergency, where every second counts to save a life.
This article aims to shed some light on the causes and risk factors of hypothermia, before looking at how to treat the symptoms while waiting for medical help to arrive. It concludes with what can be done after hypothermia.
What is hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a medical condition where our body loses heat faster than it is able to generate heat. In other words, the body drops to an abnormally, and typically dangerously, low temperature.
Normal body temperature for an adult is 37°C (98.6°F). With hypothermia, our core body temperature dips below 35°C, and the functions of the body and brain start to slow down. In serious cases, core body temperature can even fall below 27.8°C, or lower.
Therefore, if left untreated, there is a possibility of death. Nevertheless, it is possible to recover from hypothermia, provided there is immediate medical assistance at the onset of the condition.
Generally, those who are most susceptible to the risk are usually people living in places with cold weather. The condition can be developed indoors or outdoors, and the risk of getting it heightens when we are dehydrated or fatigued.
Understanding this condition better will thus help us to prevent getting it, prepare for it (for example, before winter) and treat it, if it occurs.
Causes and risk factors of hypothermia
The risk factors are varied, as they depend on certain variables. To adequately treat a person with the condition, the key variables are the person’s age, size, body mass and body fat, and duration of exposure to cold temperatures.
The person’s overall health needs to be taken into consideration as well. In the case of an elderly person who is fit versus a frail elderly person, the latter would be more vulnerable.
People with illnesses or chronic medical conditions may also be at a higher risk.
So, depending on the variables, a decline in body temperature can lead to alarming consequences. For a start, the person’s breathing, heart rate and brain activity will begin to slow down.
For these reasons, keeping warm in cold climates should never be taken for granted, and anyone with hypothermia requires emergency medical attention.
We can be at risk for several reasons. The following are some of the common causes.
1. Cold weather/Exposure to colder-than-normal temperatures
Hypothermia can set in in a number of scenarios, all of which share one common trait: the cold. Typically, these involve exposure to cold that is prolonged and/or unbearable.
For instance, hypothermia can occur if you are exposed to cold weather or bone-chilling temperatures outdoors. You could even get it if you are exposed to colder-than-normal temperatures indoors (10°C) for a prolonged time.
Falling into a cold or freezing body of water (lake, river) also puts you at risk of getting hypothermia, because your body will lose heat 25 times faster.
2. Inability to keep warm
When our body feels cold, it automatically responds by shivering. The first thing that we are bound to do is reach for a means to warm ourselves up (blanket, jacket, scarf, heater).
In places with extreme weather, relying on ‘normal’ clothing will not suffice to keep us safe. An inability to keep warm is very risky, as our body temperature will drop quickly and significantly.
To withstand extreme cold outdoors, specialised, high-tech gear that is designed for windy, icy environments must be worn to avoid hypothermia, as in the case of Mount Everest climbers.
Anyone can develop hypothermia, be it adults, children or the elderly. However, children and the elderly are at a greater risk for the problem given their decreased ability to regulate their body temperature. Thus, they need to dress appropriately for cold temperatures.
4. Mental illness
A person with impaired mental judgement, such as someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, is not able to comprehend the risks in his or her surroundings (Source: https://patient.info/doctor/hypothermia-pro)
As such, the person may not realise that the surroundings are very cold, or may not understand the urgency of dressing appropriately to face cold weather which may lead to hypothermia.
The consumption of alcohol can impair a person’s mental judgement. An intoxicated person who is exposed to cold weather will not be capable of making any conscious decisions, thus putting him or herself in danger of hypothermia.
Some medication can increase the risk of hypothermia. These include antidepressants, sedatives and anti-psychotic medication, which can affect the body’s ability to regulate its temperature.
Symptoms of hypothermia
Shivering is a clear sign that our body is cold. Hypothermia kicks in once shivering becomes excessive, and when these other symptoms (in adults) become apparent:
- Breathing slows down and becomes shallow
- Speech is mumbled or becomes slurred
- Pulse is weak and slow
It causes the person to become confused or disoriented as well. He or she may display drowsiness or fatigue, memory loss and loss of coordination (stumbling).
In severe instances, the person may also lose consciousness without any obvious signs of breathing or a pulse.
Treatment for hypothermia
Hypothermia is treatable, but it bears mentioning that medical help has to be immediate. Delayed medical attention may bring about severe complications (nerve and blood vessel damage; tissue death or frostbite; death).
What to do during hypothermia—While waiting for medical help?
The following are some important measures to take:
Call emergency help numbers
When faced with the situation of helping someone with hypothermia, you need to quickly call emergency help numbers for medical help. This has to be done first and foremost, as there is the possibility of the person’s core body temperature dipping dangerously low.
Keep the person warm and dry
While waiting for medical help to arrive, it is pertinent to stop the loss of body heat. You need to keep the person warm and dry to prevent him or her from succumbing to severe hypothermia.
Start by removing any wet clothing that the person may be wearing (hat, clothes, shoes, socks). Then, you need to shield or barricade the person against the cold (freezing winds, icy drafts).
If possible, you should wrap the person up in additional warm and dry clothes or blankets. However, if you have exhausted all measures, the use of your own body heat by means of hugging the person tightly could also work.
These basic measures should help you to stem the person’s heat loss until he or she receives medical help.
Give the person warm, sweet, non-alcoholic drinks
While helping a person with hypothermia, you could give the person a warm and/or sweet drink, or soup.
It is advisable to avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks though, as these beverages will speed up the loss of body heat.
If you are with a hypothermic person and he or she loses consciousness, you need to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately if you are trained to do so.
Sometimes, campers or hikers get lost outdoors in the wilderness or in the mountains. If this happens to you, and you catch hypothermia while you are trapped outdoors, do not panic.
However, you must get into survival mode fast, before you succumb to disorientation due to the cold. Call or signal for help, then start warming up right away. Your ultimate goal is to keep warm until medical assistance reaches you.
If you have a sleeping bag with you, pack all your loose gear into it, then lie in it. This method will reduce the volume of air inside the sleeping bag, thus allowing it to warm up faster.
While lying inside the sleeping bag, you need to curl up in the ‘heat escape lessening position’ (HELP). This body position approach will help to reduce your body heat loss.
Specifically, what HELP does is it protects the three main heat loss areas of our body—the head or neck, the rib cage or armpits, and the groin. Stay in this position and try to remain alert until rescuers find you.
When medical help arrives
When medical help finally arrives, the emergency responders will need to act fast to bring the hypothermic person’s body temperature back to a normal range.
The responders will likely determine the severity of the patient’s condition and perform CPR if necessary.
What to do after hypothermia?
Preventing hypothermia is the simplest way to avoid it. While indoors, one easy step is to ensure that the air conditioning is set at an appropriate temperature.
While outdoors, you must ensure that you have proper and adequate clothing on to protect yourself against cold weather. If you are a parent or caregiver, then you have to check that those under your care are also clothed warmly.
If you are an active or adventurous outdoorsy person, the least you could do is equip yourself with the right gear and an outdoor first-aid kit.
If you find yourself immersed in cold water due to a boating mishap, you can also execute the HELP safety method to reduce body heat loss.
Hypothermia is preventable, as there are ways to prepare for it when we are aware of the risks factors involved and causes to avoid.
Knowing how to recognise hypothermia symptoms and treat them in yourself and in others who have it is also crucial.