Hypothermia is a medical condition that many of us associate with places where extreme cold weather conditions are the norm – such as mountain ranges or polar ice caps. While it’s true that the colder the environment you’re in, the greater your chance of suffering the effects of this life-threatening condition is, it can happen just about anywhere.
For example, with severe winters in recent years, the numbers of older people being hospitalized or worse, due to the effects of hypothermia has gone up. That’s because certain more population groups like the elderly or young babies are more susceptible to the cold if exposed over a long period of time. But we all need to be vigilant.
Whether it’s from prolonged exposed to cold temperatures (usually outdoors but sometimes indoors too), falling into cold open water (i.e. a lake, river or the sea) or being caught in sudden or extreme weather conditions (e.g. a blizzard or prolonged snowstorm), victims showing symptoms of hypothermia need treatment as soon as possible.
Recognising the symptoms
Hypothermia occurs when the human body temperature drops below 35 degrees centigrade (95 Fahrenheit). If the core body temperature drops below 30 degrees (86 Fahrenheit) then it indicates severe hypothermia. The symptoms to watch out for are:
Shivering, pale and cold dry skin
Confusion, disorientation or lethargy (extreme tiredness)
Loss of consciousness or falling in and out of consciousness
Slow or shallow breathing and weak pulse
If any of these symptoms are present you must take action. And here’s how.
Take the victim indoors or to any other warm dry place as soon as possible
If the victim is wet, remove their wet or damp clothing and dry them as carefully as possible with a towel or other dry material
Next, wrap the victim in any clothing, towels, blankets or other material you have available. The head and upper body are the biggest source of heat loss, so make covering these parts your priority.
Shivering is the body’s way of trying to keep warm, so try and get the victim to shiver if they aren’t already
You can even use your own body heat to try and warm the person up – hold your body as close to the victim as possible and hug them tightly.
If the victim can swallow (check first) you could give them a warm drink – but never ever alcohol (see below)
Common mistakes to avoid when treating hypothermia
Never give the victim alcohol – the old image of the St Bernard’s dog with brandy in a small barrel on its collar is one many of us associate with cold weather rescue. The fact is though, giving a hypothermia victim alcohol risks opening the blood vessels too quickly, causing a fall in blood pressure to the major organs of blood supply, which can cause cardiac arrest.
Never put the victim in a bath – for the same reasons indicated above, do not give the victim a hot bath. It can open up blood vessels too quickly and lead to cardiac arrest and death.
With immediate treatment, the effects of mild to moderate hypothermia can be easily reversed. Severe hypothermia will require emergency hospital treatment as soon as possible; but in any case of hypothermia it’s recommended to seek medical assistance.