How do you stay warm?
You’re outside enjoying the last crisp days of fall before the weather turns colder signifying that winter has arrived. As the sun begins to set and the temperature starts to drop, you notice that your hands and face are getting cold and you start to shiver. This is a normal response when our environment is cooler than our body temperature. Did you know that it is also the first sign of hypothermia and is your body’s way of trying to warm you up? Usually after a bit, we take the hint and go inside to get out of the cold. What if you can’t? Do you know the symptoms of hypothermia?
Hypothermia is when our body is losing heat faster than it can produce it. It’s when our core body temperature drops to dangerous levels (below 95°F). It can affect your heart, nervous system and other organs causing them not to function properly and can lead to death if not reversed. Hypothermia is caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in cold water. This can be as simple as not wearing warm enough clothes or staying out in the cold too long. It can be as serious as falling into a cold body of water.
Signs of mild hypothermia include shivering, dizziness, faster breathing, trouble speaking, slight confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue, increased heart rate and nausea. Moderate to severe signs are shivering that gradually stops, clumsiness, slurred speech/mumbling, confusion/poor decision making (trying to remove warm clothes), drowsiness/very low energy, progressive loss of consciousness, weak pulse and slow, shallow breathing. It is important that if you’re having any of these symptoms or come across someone who is that you get medical attention right away.
The best course of treatment for someone with hypothermia is to move them out of the cold, remove any wet clothing and cover with blankets leaving only their face exposed. Do not rub or massage their arms or legs as this has been found to cause irregular heartbeats. If needed, you can share body heat, which means both of you have removed clothing and are lying next to each other under blankets. You can provide warm beverages if the person is awake enough to swallow (no caffeine or alcohol). You can apply warm/dry compresses to the person’s neck, chest wall and groin (do not use heating pad or lamp as this not only damages the skin but causes irregular heartbeats). Once the person is in the care of medical professionals, they have the ability to rewarm the person in a variety of ways.
The best way to avoid hypothermia is by prevention and the easiest way to do that is by following the acronym COLD, which stands for Cover, Overexertion, Layers, and Dry. Cover means to cover all exposed parts of your body (head, face, hands). Overexertion means don’t overexert yourself to the point where you are sweating because wet or damp clothes in cold air actually makes you lose body heat faster. Layers is for dressing in multiple layers with usually cotton or other similar material close to the body to retain heat and weather-resistant material on the outer layer in order to prevent wet/cold from getting in. Dry is for making sure to remove wet clothing as soon as possible. If you are outside and start shivering, then go inside as soon as you can. If children are playing outside, have them come inside frequently to get warm. Remember to dress infants and younger children in one more layer of clothing than adults would wear for same weather conditions.
If you live in or are visiting an area where you are driving in cold weather, pack an emergency cold weather supply kit to keep in the car. This kit should include blankets, candles/matches, clean cup to melt snow into drinking water, first aid kit, dry/canned food, can opener, tow rope, booster cables, compass and a bag of sand/kitty litter for traction. If you are stranded, put all of your supplies in the car with you, so you don’t have to get out every time you need something. Run the car for 10 minutes of every hour to warm up (just remember to open window slightly and be sure the exhaust pipe is clear of snow in order to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning).
If you are in a body of water, it doesn’t take long for you to lose a significant amount of body heat. So, obviously the best method to prevent hypothermia is to get out. Note, if you can’t safely get to shore, a boat or some other object that can get you out of the water, then don’t swim because you will lose the ability to control your muscles due to the cold and end up exhausted. Instead, position your body to retain as much heat as possible by bringing your arms and legs as close to your body as you can while you tread water. If you are part of group of people, huddle close together to conserve body heat. Don’t remove your clothing while in the water because it is actually providing some protection against the cold water.
Hypothermia can be dangerous, but prevention is key. By being prepared, you will be able to enjoy all the fun activities that the colder weather has to offer.