30 Days of Preparing for Severe Winter Weather Day 10: How to Prevent and Treat Hypothermia

By Suzanne Wiley published on in Camping & Survival

Our body’s central heating system is located in the hypothalamus. A constant series of communication between the ambient temperature, our bodies and brain help us regulate our temperature at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This ideal temperature keeps us healthy and our organs functioning at their best. Though people’s temperatures vary from 97 to 100 degrees—a healthy range—it takes just a few degrees cooler for our bodies to become dangerously too cold to function. When our body temperature falls just 3 degrees under 98.6 to 95 degrees, we are at a risk for hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can generate it. If we don’t stay warm enough, our organs can’t work properly. Hypothermia can even lead to death. We lose heat through our skin and by exhaling it when we breathe. Hypothermia is caused by excessive exposure to cold temperatures. Every year, roughly 600 Americans die from exposure (hypothermia). Fortunately, hypothermia is easily preventable.

Picture show two young women standing in the snow by a pond with bikinis on.

This is not how to prevent hypothermia.

Prevention

Obviously, you want to stay out of extreme cold temperatures for extended periods. Our head and extremities—fingers, hands, feet and toes—are extremely vulnerable. If you are going to be outside for an extended periods of time, dress in warm layers covering your head, neck and face. Wear a hat and scarf, preferably made from wool or fleece.

Sweating when it is cold increases your chance of getting hypothermia. Moisture evaporates faster when it’s cold making your skin colder. If you are stepping out to exercise, shovel snow, or perform other strenuous work, your first layer of clothing should be made of moisture-wicking fabric. Your outer layer should be waterproof nylon, Gore-Tex or a similar material—especially if it is snowing or rainy outside. Try to stay as dry as possible.

When it is really cold, blood flows away from our extremities and toward our essential organs. When our fingers, toes, hands, and feet don’t get enough blood to keep our tissue at 98 degrees, we can get frostbite. Wear waterproof gloves made of Gore-Tex to help protect your hands from cold and wet. When trampling around in the snow, ice and slush, wear waterproof boots or shoes and double up on wool socks. You can also stick chemical warmers in your gloves, socks or pockets.

Be sure to stay hydrated and eat. Our bodies burn more calories trying to keep warm.

Symptoms

Hypothermia creeps up on you. Symptoms do not happen all at once. Though shivering is an outward and noticeable symptom, hypothermia causes confusion and poor judgment so you might not recognize you are suffering from it. Use the buddy system and look out for each other. Older people, infants, and those with diabetes and thyroid conditions are more susceptible to getting hypothermia. Pay extra special attention to those at a higher risk.

Hypothermia can be mild, moderate or severe. In a severe case, it is imperative to immediately seek medical attention. During exposure to cold for extended periods, the heart and liver—which makes most of our heat—goes into sleep mode protecting and preserving heat for our organs. A patience with a dire case of hypothermia—when one’s temperature reaches 86 degrees—can appear dead. Performing CPR will likely be necessary until help arrives. When attended to quickly, most people will recover from hypothermia.

Picture shows a man completely wrapped up in plastic only exposing his face to treat hypothermia.

Cover completely in blankets—even plastic, leaving only the face open.

Mild

Mild hypothermia occurs when your core temperature drops from 98.6 to 96 degrees. Symptoms include controllable shivering—the person can voluntarily stop—loss of complex motor functions (loss of coordination), and numbness of extremities.

Moderate

From 95 to 93 degrees a person is experiencing a moderate case of hypothermia. They may become dazed, lose fine motor skills—can’t grip something or zip up a zipper, slur their speech, experience violent shivering and can be irrational—refuse help.

Severe

Potentially lethal hypothermia occurs when our temperature drops below 92 degrees. Under this condition, you would not be able to walk, muscles become rigid, your pulse slows, pupils dilate, skin becomes pale, and shivering comes in waves.

Treatment

The objective in treating hypothermia is to warm the victim slowly. Avoid direct heat on the person suffering. Any extreme change in temperature, such as putting them in a hot bath or vigorously rubbing them can cause shock or cardiac arrest.

1. Get inside a home, vehicle, garage, or any other shelter.
2. Remove any wet clothing and put on dry clothes.
3. Cover completely in blankets leaving only the face open.
4. Apply warm, but dry compresses—such as towels or blankets warmed in the drier—to the neck, chest, belly and groin. Applying heat too soon on the legs or arms may cause cold blood to rush to the heart, lungs and brain, which can be deadly.
5. Have the afflicted person sip warm beverages, avoiding caffeine and absolutely nothing with alcohol.

If in doubt, call 911 and request medical assistance.

Did you miss yesterday’s post, “Day 9: Find a New Holster?” You can read it here. Come back tomorrow and learn why it is just as important to stay hydrated in the winter as it is in the summer.

SLRule

Introduced to shooting at young age by her older brother, Suzanne Wiley took to the shooting sports and developed a deep love for it over the years. Today, she enjoys plinking with her S&W M&P 15-22, loves revolvers, the 1911, short-barreled AR-15s, and shooting full auto when she gets the chance. Suzanne specializes in writing for the female shooter, beginner shooter, and the modern-day prepper. Suzanne is a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!

View all articles by CTD Suzanne

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