Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops below that which is necessary to maintain primary bodily functions. By definition, hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops to below 35 degrees C or 95 degrees F. There are four grades of hypothermia:
Mild – The body is at 32 to 35 degrees C.
Moderate – The body is at 28 to 32 degrees C.
Severe – The body is at 20 to 28 degrees C.
Profound – The body is at any temperature less than 20 degrees C.
In the early stages of hypothermia, mild to medium shivering is the strong indicator, with numbness of the extremities becoming a factor. As blood vessels constrict, hand movement becomes restricted, with the rest of the extremities following as the hypothermia becomes more serious. The body will experience goose bumps all over as the victim’s hair stands on end, as this is the body’s natural attempt to keep warm.
As the hypothermia sets in, the victim will feel a warm sensation, as if the coldness is fading, but this is a sign that the hypothermia is getting worse. The victim will become very tired and muscle use will be restricted greatly. The limited muscle use will make movement very tough, as the victim will seem dazed and physically aloof. The skin will become pale as blood vessels contract to the maximum extent to attempt to keep the body warm. Smaller appendages like fingers, toes and ears will begin to turn blue. As the final stages of hypothermia set in, shivering will become violent.
Once the body succumbs to the final stages of hypothermia, shivering will end as the body’s muscles become useless. The victim’s skin will appear blue and swollen and movement will be nearly impossible. The heart rate and pulse will slow and organs will fail, leaving the brain as the final functioning organ in the body. As the brain passes, the body will become clinically dead.
In treating any stage of hypothermia, emergency medical professionals should be contacted. If professionals are not readily available, the first step in treating the victim is checking the pulse. Because the body is at a much lower temperature, the pulse must be checked for one minute before proceeding with CPR. After the pulse is maintained, warming the victim is the next priority. Bring the victim indoors and remove all wet clothing. Help the victim ingest warm fluids, excluding anything with caffeine or alcohol as those will impede the recovery of the contracted blood vessels. Use blankets and aluminum foil to cover the body before placing it in a sleeping bag. The use of electronic or gas heaters is not suggested, as it will create the illusion of recovery, while the body’s core has not fully recovered.
In medical treatment, professionals will often use thiamine injections to stabilize or induce the pulse. In cases of extreme (or profound) hypothermia, a defibrillator may be necessary to induce heart activity. A process called active core rewarming may also be conducted, using warm liquids and air to reduce and eliminate the effects of hypothermia within the body.
When participating in events that are of the cold weather variety, wearing the proper clothing is the first step to prevention. Cotton is not beneficial to cold weather as it retains water. Anything that restricts the flow of heat to the body or the body’s natural ability to produce heat should be avoided. In situations involving cold or freezing water, a wetsuit is favorable protection, as is a life preserver. In any situation involving cold weather, alcohol should be avoided as it inhibits the body’s natural warmth.
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