Hypothermia is a medical condition where a body loses its heat too fast that the body temperature dips below safe levels. If hit by hypothermia, our body’s major organs could malfunction. Eventually, heart and respiratory failure could lead to death. Read on to learn more about this dangerous condition and how to prevent it .
Normal temperature for the body and hypothermia
Hypothermia refers to the life-threatening condition when heat loss causes a dip below the normal temperature for the body. Extreme cold conditions trigger most cases of hypothermia. Mountaineering expedition members often encounter low temperatures, high winds, and snowfall, which may lead to hypothermia. Prolonged exposure to cold water also causes hypothermia.
Normal body temperature for humans averages 37°C. Affected by hypothermia, it dips below 35 °C. In extreme cases, this drops below 27.7°C.
Symptoms of hypothermia
The first symptom of hypothermia is shivering. This is the body’s primary natural defense mechanism to try and heat our body up. Major symptoms for hypothermia include:
● Shivering is the first symptom. However, it could wear off as hypothermia advances
● Slow pace of breathing
● Delirium and confused state of mind
● Inability to speak properly
● Slow pulse rate
● Lack of coordination in actions
● Eventual loss of consciousness, with very weak pulse
Aids to prevent hypothermia during mountaineering
Hypothermia is quick to set in, especially in mountains where the temperature drops fast. Our mind and body cannot function well even with mild conditions. Use the following aids to stay safe.
Aids that will help prevent hypothermia
● Layers of clothes to prevent heat from getting out of your body. The inner layer should remove your sweat and be lightweight. The best choices are polyester and lightweight wool.
● Avoid cotton in cold weather. Middle layers should trap heat. Use fleece made of wool, polyester, or down.
● Add another middle layer considering your activity level.
● The outer layer should protect you from wind, rain, and snow. Breathable material is ideal as it prevents sweating.
● You can also add a bubble wrapper sheet in between your layer of clothing to prevent heat from escaping.
● Adding papers or cardboard may work the same way.
● Use gloves or mittens to protect your hands.
● Wear warm hats to keep your head warm.
● Use face cover, neck warmer, and scarf.
● Wear woolen socks and waterproof boots for warmth.
Is hypothermia the same as hyperthermia and hyperpyrexia?
The answer to this question is no. In fact, both these conditions are totally opposite of Hypothermia.
It is the condition where the body temperature rises above normal levels. The heat from the environment causes the failure of the heat-regulation system of our bodies. The external heat combines with our body’s inner state to cause hyperthermia. Examples include heat cramps, heat fatigue, dizziness from long heat exposure, heatstroke, and heat exhaustion.
It is a form of high-temperature fever when the body raises its temperature above 41.5°C. The body acts upon the brain’s command to increase its temperature. External conditions are not responsible for this.
Risk factors that can fuel hypothermia are:
● Fatigue: if you are weak, your body’s ability to cope with cold reduces considerably
● Age: As you grow older, your ability to detect cold diminishes. If you do not act when it gets cold, it could result in hypothermia.
● Mental issues: Dementia or psychological problems may hamper judgment. Hence, you may end up making the wrong decisions and expose yourself to extreme cold.
● Use of alcohol and drugs: Alcohol heats the body inside, but it causes heat loss by the expansion of blood vessels. Besides, alcohol removes the shivering reaction in drinkers. Recreational drugs also affect judgment, exposing you to hypothermia.
● Health conditions and medication: if you have hypothyroidism, Parkinson’s disease, anorexia nervosa, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, or stroke, your heat regulation mechanism is already slow. Hence, you run a higher risk of hypothermia.
Further, if you take medicines like, sedatives, antidepressants, narcotic pain killers , or antipsychotics, your heat regulation mechanism gets altered , exposing you to hypothermia.
Complications of hypothermia
Complications that result from hypothermia include:
● Tissue death from the stoppage of blood flow, also known as gangrene.
● Frozen body tissues are also called frostbite, which may also occur.
Treatment of hypothermia
Hypothermia is a dangerous situation, which could lead to death if untreated. Therefore, emergency medical treatment is very crucial. If this is not possible, take the following measures for temporary relief:
● Get rid of anything moist such as clothes, gloves, shoes, socks, and hats.
● Take action to stop any heat loss. Cover the person from the wind, using dry clothes.
● Relocate to a warm place immediately.
● Try to warm the person using layers of clothes. Use hot packs or heating pads on armpits, groin, neck, and torso. If nothing is available, use body heat by rubbing.
● Provide hot liquids to help heat the body. Avoid caffeine and alcohol; they cause more heat loss. Avoid giving fluids to someone unconscious.
Precautions for hypothermia
You can follow the acronym COLD for hypothermia prevention:
● Cover: Protect body parts when exposed to the cold to stop heat loss from the surface. Use hats to prevent heat loss through your head. Also, use mittens for better heat retention.
● Overexertion: Do not strain your body too much. This leads to sweating, and you will end up losing more heat.
● Layers: Divide clothes into layers. Use waterproof material for the outermost layer and wool for inner layers. Wool is much better in preserving heat than cotton.
● Dry: Avoid getting wet at all costs. Even if you get wet, remove those clothes and stay dry.
Food and fruits are essential if you want to stay warm. Our body needs the energy to produce heat. Carbohydrates provide quick energy so that a quick snack can be a lifesaver in the mountains. Besides, fluids also contribute to keeping you healthy in the cold.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
- What are the main causes of hypothermia?
The usual causes of hypothermia include exposure to cold for long, using clothes that do not offer enough warmth in cold, staying in wet clothes for prolonged periods, staying in cold water for too long, and staying in a home too cold.
- Is hypothermia painful?
Hypothermia can be highly painful. These sensations stay for a long time until you lose consciousness.
- What are the five stages of hypothermia?
The five stages in hypothermia based on severity are:
- Mild: Shivers and a normal mental state. Core temperature between 32°C and 35°C.
- Moderate: No shivers but changed mental state . Core temperature between 28°C and 32°C.
- Severe: The patient falls unconscious. Core temperature between 24°C to 28°C.
- Severe: Possible death. Core temperature between 13.7°C to 24°C.
- Death: Irreversible state of hypothermia. Core temperature below 9°C to 13°C.
Note that normal body temperature for humans is 37°C.
- How quickly does hypothermia set in?
When you are in temperatures like –40°C to –45°C, hypothermia could set in within 5 to 7 minutes. Note that our body cools down 25 times faster in water as compared to air.
- How can you treat hypothermia?
The best way to treat hypothermia is by immediately providing the patient warmth. Remove any wet clothes, hats, gloves, shoes, and socks. Move to a warm location and cover yourself with a dry blanket. Take warm liquids as quickly as you can. Warm your body using blankets, heating pads, or body heat.