How to Recognize, Treat and Avoid Hypothermia
It’s a fact of life that our kids still have to stand in the bitterly cold temperatures while they wait for their bus. Fortunately, they aren’t exposed to the cold for too long; assuming the bus driver is on time, they will soon be on the warm bus and safely on their way to school. But what if the bus driver is late? Before you balk at that idea, it actually happened to me when I was in middle school. As a matter of fact, it happened on two different occasions. Both times, temperatures were extremely cold (in the teens), with wind chills in the single digits; and both times we were stuck in the cold waiting for a bus that would be nearly an hour late. The extended cold snap apparently worked a number on engines and the buses wouldn’t start. That was 200 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. My fingers and toe were numb, and I spent the first hour at school sitting in the nurse’s office while we warmed my extremities. I had minor frostbite, and my finger tips were whiteish-purple for a day or so. Because it happened to me, twice, it’s safe to say that it could happen to any child standing in the frigid cold. I wanted to present a few tips to help you and your children recognize the signs of hypothermia, and some actions you/they can take to mitigate the damage that it can cause to skin tissue. Perhaps it will be one of their classmates who needs help. Hopefully, the following information will reside in the accessible part of your memory but never be required of you. I’ve had frostbite on at least 3 occasions (including one unfortunate slip on an icy rock while my boy scout troop crossed a partially frozen stream in the Great Smokey Mountains. Continue to my article about hypothermia: recognition, treatment, and prevention.
What is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is the condition that occurs within the human body when the body’s core temperature becomes too low. The normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Celsius. Hypothermia is associated with water accidents, inadequate protection from freezing temperatures and physical exhaustion, among others. Children, seniors, people who’ve been injured and people with severe health problems are at risk. However, anyone who spends long periods of time in a severely cold environment can suffer from hypothermia.
There are a number of ways to recognize the onset of hypothermia. They are:
- Poor judgment.
- Being careless about proper protection from the cold.
- Irrational or unusual behavior.
- A lack of interest in things.
- Slurred speech.
- Feeling cold to the touch.
Development of Hypothermia
Hypothermia development is caused by a wide variety of factors, including:
- Age – seniors and children are at risk.
- Body size and weight.
- Duration of exposure to cold.
- Alcohol and caffeine consumption.
- Frigid temperatures.
- Wind velocity and wind chill factor.
- Being wet in cold temperatures.
Loss of Body Heat
Heat transfer of various types are the sole physical causes of hypothermia. Heat is lost from the body through: conduction and radiation.
Evaporation occurs when the body loses heat because too much water is removed from the skin’s surface.
This occurs when body heat is lost because the body is in contact with a cool object, such as snow or ice. The heat leaves the body and is transferred to that object.
The heating of air to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Celsius, which is then exhaled into cold air.
Convection occurs when cold air crosses the body’s skin surface and body heat is transferred to the colder air.
The Threat of Hypothermia
- A child.
- A diabetic.
- Someone with serious health issues, such as a heart condition or other disorder.
- Someone who takes a variety of medications.
In extreme weather conditions and freezing temperatures, the threat of hypothermia exists if a person is:
If you believe that someone has the signs and symptoms of hypothermia, get them to shelter, or make a shelter immediately. The next step is to build a fire or use a camp stove to provide a source of heat. If possible, give the person a hot drink.
Never allow a person who may be suffering from the onset of hypothermia to drink alcoholic beverages or those containing caffeine. This includes coffee, tea and hot chocolate.
Finally, wrap the person in a blanket and add extra layers of clothing to keep body heat in. If he is not wearing a hat, cover his head with the blanket, a towel or a jacket. Once you’ve completed these steps, the person will begin to recover. However, the person should be transferred to a hospital emergency room where he can be checked by a health care professional.
Things to Remember
- Never warm a person who is suffering from hypothermia too quickly. Allow warmth from a heat source and a hot drink to warm the body slowly.
- Find shelter immediately, or find a shelter behind rocks, in a wooded area or even a cave.
- Search for twigs, branches and moss to build a fire.
- Use evergreen branches, rocks and tree limbs to create a wind break. A trench dug into the snow will also give protection for cold and wind.
- Wrap the victim in a blanket. If you’re in a group, all members should huddle together under blankets. Body heat is a good source of warmth.
- Never sit directly on the cold or snowy ground. Use a blanket, garbage bag or evergreen branches to create an insulated ground cover.
- Place your hands between your legs or under your armpits. These are places where your body gives off a great deal of warmth.
- Lay together with another person spoon fashion. This helps both of you retain precious body heat.
- Loosen laces in shoes and boots for better circulation. If you have a backpack with you, put your feet into it with your boots on.
- If you are in a group, take turns rubbing each other’s hands and feet. Rub briskly to cause friction because it is a good heat source.
- If possible, snack on candy bars, energy bars, nuts and other foods or snacks that are contain a high amount of energy.
- Light and burn a fuel stick if there are no materials for a fire. A fuel stick provides approximately four hours of heat.
- Exercise to promote circulation.
- Never leave a campsite on your own in order to find help. Travel with another person, if possible. Never leave anyone alone at a campsite.
How to Prevent Heat Loss
- Wear several layers of clothing that is loosely knit and able to breathe.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf, gloves or mittens. This stops heat loss by respiration.
- Place insulation on the ground. Never sit or lay directly on snow or cold soil.
- Keep body extremities covered at all times.
- Seek shelter in a cave, rock cropping, a cave or wooded area. Be sure to create a wind break.
- If possible, one member of your party should carry a satellite phone. These types of phones allow you to call for help from most remote areas.
- Send two people for help. Have them note landmarks along the way.
- When a phone is available, call 911 and ask for the police or a park ranger. They know how to contact a rescue team.
- Lighters, waterproof containers of matches and three fire starter kits.
- An insulated or space blanket. This can be used as a heat reflector, a wind break or as a signal should planes or helicopters be searching for you in a remote area.
- Several fuel sticks.
- A jackknife.
- An abundance of plastic garbage bags. These can be used for insulation or as a blanket.
- A small wire saw. These are perfect for cutting evergreen branches quickly and efficiently.
- Low temperature electrician’s tape to be used to repair clothing, boots, tents, sleeping bags and numerous other items.
- A large box-type flashlight with four extra sets of batteries and bulbs. This will be as precious as gold if a nighttime emergency should occur.
- A map and a compass.
- Lots of extra loosely knit clothing.
- 100 feet of heavy rope or cord.
- A small mirror to use as a reflector signal.
- A loud sports coach or policeman’s whistle.
- Extra high-energy food.
- Lots of bottled water.
- Tablets for purifying water.
- A metal pot or tin cup for melting snow.
- Snow shovel.
- An emergency First Aid kit.
Follow the tips in this article to recognize, treat and avoid hypothermia. Be prepared whenever you go out into extreme weather conditions during the winter months. Always tell several people where you are going and the route you are planning to travel. Give them an estimated time of arrival home and instruct them what to do if you don’t arrive when you should.
Be sure to always be prepared for harsh weather conditions and emergencies. The life you save may be your own.