You’ve likely heard of the term hypothermia. People will tell you to put more clothes on because you’ll die of it while queuing for clubs in the middle of winter. You’ll hear stories of people suffering from the condition on top of mountains or in the middle of the wilderness. Most of the time you either roll your eyes or just believe that it could never happen to you.
The truth is hypothermia can affect people in their own homes. This is something that causes more deaths than it should. You will need to seek immediate medical attention should you suspect someone close to you is suffering from the condition.
This isn’t just something that causes death in the winter. It’s a condition that can happen in the middle of the summer! It’s all about being exposed to cold temperatures. To help make sure you get all the attention you need and take steps to prevent hypothermia, here is everything you could possibly need to know.
What Exactly Is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is when the body temperature drops dangerously low and usually happens due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. This could mean being exposed to the cold winter temperatures outside, but it can also mean suffering from a capsized boat in the middle of summer and being exposed to the cold waters overnight, despite the heat of the day.
When the body reaches 95F, you’ll be diagnosed with hypothermia. However, severe hypothermia is diagnosed when the body reaches 82F or lower.
If untreated, hypothermia will lead to death. The best thing to do is get medical help. If you’re in a situation where help can’t come, you’ll need to take other steps to raise the body temperature and avoid serious risks.
How Does Hypothermia Happen?
When the body is continually exposed to cold temperatures, its own temperature will start to drop. The body naturally produces heat, but that heat is lost when the temperatures around it is colder. Think about the way heat escapes a home when the temperatures outside are colder.
It is possible for someone to suffer from hypothermia despite being in mild environments. However, hiking or spending time in the wilderness without the right equipment is one of the most common reasons for hypothermia. This is often accidental hypothermia since the lack of equipment or dry clothing often occurs due to accidents that happen.
The exact temperatures outside will affect people differently. Our age, body mass, overall health, and body fat will all influence our abilities to remain warm and avoid distress. Someone who is older, and frail can suffer hypothermia overnight in their own home, while someone who is healthy and in their 30s may just feel cold but not suffer the health risks. Younger people are also more at risk than adults since their bodies haven’t developed as much, they tend to be thinner, and they have lower body masses.
The time exposed to the cold temperatures will also have an effect. Someone who is exposed overnight is more likely to develop hypothermia than someone exposed for just a few hours.
Your medical health will also have a direct effect on becoming hypothermic. This is especially the case if you have a thyroid condition or diabetes. Some medications also make the body more susceptible to hypothermia, as well as alcohol, drug use, and suffering from severe trauma.
Up to 90% of your body’s heat will be lost through the skin, with the rest being lost through your breath when you exhale. Most of the heat will be lost when the skin is exposed to moisture or wind, which is why someone immersed in cold water is more likely to suffer from hypothermia within a few hours compared to someone who is dry. The heat lost is 25 times faster due to the moisture!
The brain will alert the body to a problem, which is why you start shivering when you are cold. Your muscles are trying to generate more heat through the activity. Your blood vessels will also narrow temporarily, so you can slow your heart rate and expel less heat through the skin. The organs will also start to shut down. They try to preserve any heat that they have left to protect the brain. This can lead to slower breaths and less brain activity.
Eventually, fatigue, confusion, and other symptoms will start to set in. People can’t make the most intelligent choices, as their brain activity is hampered considerably. This can lead to making the condition worse without meaning to.
Hypothermia Risk Factors to Look Out For
While most people will know someone stuck in the wilderness or falling into icy water is a major risk factor for hypothermia, there are others that will more likely affect the people around you. Some of the risk factors are linked to the health and age, so it’s important to take steps to keep an eye on the people close to you during the colder months.
The elderly and children are the most at risk of suffering from hypothermia. This is especially the case when they don’t have good heating or enough food or clothing. There are many stories of the elderly suffering from hypothermia during the winter. They don’t have the money to spend on their heating bills and they can’t handle the temperature drops throughout the night.
Babies and children may kick off the blankets during the night. It’s important to check on them before you got to bed and make sure they’re covered. Dressing them properly to plan for kicking the blankets off is another good option if you can’t use the heating overnight. Babies can use infant sleep bags, which remain on throughout the night and don’t pull up around the face in the middle of the night.
Those with mental illness and some other medical illnesses, like thyroid problems or diabetes, are also more likely to develop hypothermia. They can make poor decisions when it comes to putting the heating on or when leaving the house. Those with medical problems can already find their bodies are put under excess stress. Their hormones are imbalanced, and the organs can start to protect themselves at an earlier stage.
People who are underweight will also see a higher risk of becoming hypothermic. Body fat is one of the natural ways to keep yourself warm. The fat acts as insulation. In fact, overweight people who lose weight and get into a normal BMI level often admit that they are colder during the winter months because of the loss of insulation.
Alcohol and drugs also lead to issues. They impair the thoughts, leading to people making poor decisions while out in the cold. This can include jumping into icy lakes without thinking about the damage, going the wrong way and getting lost, or even not going outside dressed for the weather.
Of course, those who spend extended times outside are also more likely to develop hypothermia. It’s important to use adequate clothing. There is also pocket devises that can help to keep someone warm.
Hypothermia Symptoms to Look Out For
There are many symptoms linked to the condition. They will all usually happen around the same time to various extremes and get worse as the time goes on. This means there’s no way that you can confuse the symptoms for something else. If you notice any of the symptoms, you should call a doctor immediately.
Shivering is normal when cold and is a good sign. It means the heat regulation system is system working. You should be concerned if someone stops shivering but their body temperature is still low. When someone gets too cold, the heat regulation system shuts down and this will lead to no more shivering. The body temperature will continue to drop.
As the organs shut down, the brain doesn’t get as much support. This leads to some memory loss, confusion, drowsiness, and poor decision making. In some cases, they can appear drunk, but mixed with the other symptoms there is a high risk that they have succumbed to hypothermia.
Their heart and lungs also suffer. The body reduces the heart rate and oxygen passing through the body to go into survival mode. This leads to shallow and slow breathing. Their heart rate will drop, and you may struggle to find the pulse in the usual pulse points.
Eventually, someone with hypothermia will lose their coordination and pass out from the cold. These are the extreme symptoms, so you need to call an ambulance immediately and take steps to treat the condition yourself if medical help isn’t available.
Infants and children may not show some of the symptoms mentioned above since they don’t have full control of their extremities. Most infants and children will have cold skin, but it will also be bright red. They will also have a lack of energy, so you may find them sleeping a lot more than they usually do.
Treating Hypothermia Both at Home and in the Hospital
The best thing to do is call for an ambulance. Hypothermia is life-threatening and kills far more people than it should do to the lack of knowledge or awareness.
There will be times that the medical help isn’t available. In other cases, there will be times that it takes too long to get the medical attention, so you need to opt for home treatments to help increase the body temperature, or at least prevent the temperatures dropping too far.
One of the first things to do is remove all wet clothing. This includes hats, socks, and even thermals. Wet clothes will just cause the body heat to drop quicker. Use dry, warm clothing where possible to cover up the individual and protect them from any drafts and wind. Blankets are also good to help add heat.
When helping someone warm up again, focus on the torso area first. The extremities don’t need as much protection. The torso houses the organs that have shut down and make it harder to make good decisions and remain awake. You can use electric blankets, hot packs, heating pads and more. Make sure none of them will burn the skin. Even the slightest touch can leave burn marks.
If none of these options are available, another person’s body heat is one of the best options. You’ll be best removing your own clothes, so you get the skin to skin contact. This can be especially beneficial to young children. In fact, it’s so useful that hospitals recommend new parents enjoy skin to skin contact with their babies, especially premature babies that don’t need to remain in incubators.
Hot liquids are good, but you’ll want to only use heat liquid and non-caffeinated drinks. Alcohol and caffeine will speed up the heat loss process within the body. It shouldn’t need stating, but if someone is unconscious, you shouldn’t give them any liquids at all.
When someone’s hypothermic to the point of no pulse or breath, you’ll need to administer CPR. Remember that the pulse can slow considerably, and it can be hard to test for it. Doing CPR when there is a heartbeat, even faint, is dangerous. Continue CPR until either there’s a pulse/breath back or when the paramedics arrive.
From there, the condition can be treated in the hospital. The hospital will usually follow many of the same treatments, but with a more medical-style method. Warmed IV fluids and heated oxygen are often used. In some extreme cases, a peritoneal lavage will be used. This is when the abdominal cavity is “washed” internally to help heat up the organs directly.
Problems After Hypothermia
When someone has been treated for hypothermia, they will be observed in the hospital. If you opted against the hospital, you’ll need to watch closely. There are some side effects of suffering from hypothermia.
The most common issue is the development of pneumonia. This can also lead to life-threatening problems, so will need to be treated immediately and often requires a hospital stay. Heart arrhythmias, cardiac arrest, and ventricular fibrillation are also side effects of being hypothermic.