Chill out dude: What do you know about hypothermia?

Cold times: Winter is a prime time to feel the effects of hypothermia. Do you know what to look for if your core body temperature is getting too low? (Illustration from National Forest Service)
While our winter has been generally mild over most of the U.S. this season, you can never get too much information about the dangers of hypothermia.

As the recent news accounts of the missing hikers on Mount Hood reminds us, hypothermia and other impacts of extended exposure to snow can have drastic impacts on us.

So what exactly is hypothermia, anyway?

You’re probably well aware that our optimum body temperature is 98.6 degrees F. That’s the best and most efficient temperature for chemical reactions to take place in our body, reactions that keep our body working.

When our body temperature goes below 98.6 degrees, those reactions slow down. The colder our body gets, the more severe the impacts will be on our body. And it doesn’t take too much of a change in our body’s core temperature to have significant impacts on our bodies.

The first stages are considered mild hypothermia – when your body’s core temperature drops to 96 degrees F. Characteristics that show up in that stage are shivering and difficulty in doing complex motor actions (like skiing or skating). You can still walk and talk without difficulty.

Frozen face: Skiers may have ice on their face while they're on the slopes. But hypothermia will chill down their insides. (Photo by nakohe)
Frozen face: Skiers may have ice on their face while they're on the slopes. But hypothermia will chill down their insides. (Photo by nakohe)
The second stage, moderate hypothermia hits when your body’s core temperature ranges from 95 to 93 degrees F. Symptoms that can set in at that stage include dazed consciousness, loss of fine motor coordination (difficulty zipping up a coat, for instance), slurred speech, violent shivering and irrational behavior. In some cases of that last symptom, people will start to take off their clothes, unaware that they are actually cold.

If you don’t start to warm up, you’ll head into severe hypothermia – when body core temperatures can range from 92 - 86 degrees and below. These temperatures are immediately life threatening. You personally probably wouldn’t recognize these symptoms if you had them, but they include shivering in waves, falling to the ground and assuming the fetal position, muscles becoming rigid, skin becoming pale and pupils dialating. At around 90 degrees of core body temperature, the body actually goes into hibernation, shutting down blood circulation to the outer extremities with heart and breathing rates reducing. At 86 F, the body becomes a “metabolic icebox.” The person will look dead, even though their inner body is still active.

The tricky thing with hypothermia is, the farther you go into it, the less you’ll be able to recognize it. But should you come upon someone suffering from severe stages of hypothermia, here’s what you can do.

With some help, using the person’s body is the best way to warm him or her up. First may sure the person is dry. Then create a shell of total insulation for the person. That can include sleeping bags, blankets or wool clothes. Don’t worry about having too many layers. A four-inch bundle of insulation around the person works great. Don’t ever put the hypothermic person in a sleeping bag with another person.

Other things to consider are fuel for the body. In severe hypothermia, the stomach shuts down. But getting warm fluids into the cold body will have a great impact. Give a suffering person a mixture of warm water with sugar every 15 minutes. Those nutrients will be absorbed right into the blood stream and help create more body heat to warm the body. Let the person urniate as well. After the urine has left the body, more internal body heat will be directed to heat up other organs.

What can you do to prevent hypothermia? First off, wear plenty of warm, water-proof clthing when you know you’ll be out in cold weather. Also, use the buddy system with another person to check each other’s face, cheeks and ears for signs of frostbite. Do a regular self-check on yourself for cold areas, wet feet, numbness or anesthesia. If you discover a cold injury, warm up that area as soon as possible.

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