Hypothermia – what it is and what to do

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Hypothermia is the name given to the condition the human body experiences when its temperature becomes colder than the normal range. It is a dangerous and life-threatening condition that needs urgent treatment.

The normal temperature of a human body is around 37oC, although it does vary slightly from person to person. The risk of hypothermia begins when a person’s temperature drops below 35oC because they are unable to produce enough body heat to counteract the heat they are losing.

How is hypothermia caused?

Hypothermia is most commonly associated with cold environments but it could happen to anyone, even indoors and during the summer months. There are several factors that can cause it:

  • Inadequate or inappropriate clothing for the situation or weather.  
  • Immersion in cold water. Water exchanges heat up to 25 times faster than air does. Water does not have to be extremely cold to be dangerous, even water temperatures of 26oC can bring on hypothermia when someone is immersed for too long.
  • Being damp. Whether it’s from snow, rain or sweat, wet clothes and skin increase the likelihood of being affected.
  • Cold winds. These can really strip body warmth very quickly while fighting strong winds will also sap the energy needed to keep the body warm.
  • Unable to afford heating or has no access to heating at home. Living in a cold building will stress the body.  
  • Age & health. Some people will be more susceptible than others. The very young, the elderly, those with pre-existing medical conditions, limited mobility or alcohol/substance users are all more vulnerable to hypothermia. They may not be able to communicate or move around well enough to stay warm.
  • Alcohol consumption. Alcohol accelerates the speed at which your body loses heat by dilating the blood vessels.

What are the symptoms of hypothermia?

The first stages of hypothermia is referred to as ‘mild’, when the body’s core drops to a temperature between 35oC and 32oC. At this stage the following symptoms may be present:

Shivering (not everyone will shiver though).

Tiredness

Confusion

Slow or slurred speech

Cold and pale skin

Fast breathing

As the body core temperature drops below 32oC, hypothermia progresses to a more severe level and these symptoms may develop:

Difficulty walking or clumsy

Any shivering stops

Slow and weakening pulse

Slow, shallow breathing

Stiff or jerky limb movements

Becoming unconscious

How can I give first aid to someone with hypothermia?

What to do:

  • Move the person to a warmer place – indoors if possible or into shelter from wind and weather.
  • Remove wet clothing, ensure their body is dried and give them dry clothes.  
  • Wrap them in blankets, coats, sleeping bags or anything similar to hand. Cover their head as well. Someone else’s body heat can be utilised too by sitting or lying close to them.
  • If they are outside and cannot be moved indoors, try and insulate them from the cold ground. If there is nothing else available then leaves or bushy plants can help.
  • If they are conscious and able to swallow safely, give them a warm drink (not containing alcohol or caffeine).
  • Again, if they are conscious and able to swallow safely, give them some high energy food such as those containing sugar.
  • Call 999 for emergency assistance and continue to monitor them until help arrives.

What NOT to do:

  • Make the person have a warm or hot bath.
  • Use any heating lamps or pads.
  • Massage or rub their limbs.
  • Give them alcohol

These actions could actually make the condition worse and might cause cardiac arrest.

If you believe somebody may be suffering from hypothermia, always dial 999 and follow the instructions of the operator until trained medical personnel arrive.

See also: How to survive in open water

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