Safety: Hypothermia

Hypothermia relates to drops in human body temperature to levels at which physical and mental abilities deteriorate. The process is progressive and can lead to death. It is not the same thing as “freezing” instances of hypothermia can occur at temperatures as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia is the modern term for a condition that used to be referred to as “exposure”.

The root cause of hypothermia is simple: loss of body heat at a higher rate then it is created. The loss of body heat is caused by things like low surrounding temperatures, wet clothes that have lost their insulation properties, and wind creating wind-chill affects on the body. Your clothes can get wet from rain or body perspiration. The inability of the body to make up for heat loss is amplified by factors like fatigue, dehydration and lack of food.

Hypothermia goes through several stages defined by body temperature and symptoms. First, there is mild hypothermia which occurs at body temperature ranging down to 96 F. Typical symptoms are involuntary shivering and the loss of the ability to do complex motor functions. The person can still walk and converse. Next comes moderate hypothermia, with body temperature ranging from 95 to 93 F. Symptoms include dazed consciousness, loss of fine motor coordination (particularly in the hands), slurred speech, violent shivering and strange behavior (including taking their clothes off). Severe hypothermia occurs with body temperature in the 92 to 86 F range, and is life threatening. Symptoms include waves of shivering, inability to walk, taking a fetal position to conserve heat, muscle rigidity and a major drop in pulse rate.

Victims of advanced hypothermia can appear dead but in fact still be alive with imperceptibly slow rates of breathing and pulse. The best way to deal with hypothermia is to get the victim into dry clothes, give them warm drinks and food, and put them in a sleeping bag, possibly with another person to speed up their warming. Get advanced hypothermia victims to a medical professional (MD or EMT) as fast as possible, even if they look like a goner they may be revivable with the right procedures.

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