Not being prepared for cold weather during winter sports can lead to many different ailments from snow blindness to injuries caused by slipping on black ice. One of the most well-known winter ailments is hypothermia. Under the right circumstances, hypothermia can be deadly, and while you may have heard of it, you may not know the signs of it or how to treat it. Here is our complete guide to everything you should know about hypothermia before heading out into the cold.
Table of Contents
- What is Hypothermia?
- Causes of Hypothermia
- Symptoms of Hypothermia
- How to Prevent Hypothermia
- How to Treat Hypothermia
- What to Do About Frostbite
What is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is an emergency medical condition where you experience your body dropping to a dangerously low temperature. In hypothermia, your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. While a normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia is defined as a core body temperature that falls below 95 F.
Hypothermia is dangerous because the body cannot function properly at too low of a temperature. The heart, organs, and nervous system cannot work as they are supposed to during hypothermia. Left untreated, this condition can lead to organ failure and result in death.
While people of any age can get hypothermia, it is especially important for babies and older adults to be aware of hypothermia and how to prevent it, as they are at higher risk than a regular adult. If a bedroom a baby is sleeping in is too cold or a senior has inadequate clothing, heating, or food, they are more at risk of getting hypothermia.
Causes of Hypothermia
Hypothermia typically occurs when you have had prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, but it doesn’t only happen in cold winter months. Even in typically warmer seasons such as spring and summer, you can be at risk for hypothermia.
For example, if you are swimming in cold water or hiking to extremely high or low elevations where the temperature drops, even in these warmer months, it can also expose you to temperatures that can cause your body temperature to drop drastically. In any scenario where you are not wearing clothes that are warm enough for weather conditions, staying in cold temperatures (either indoors or outdoors) for too long, or being unable to get out of cold water or wet clothes into a warm, dry location, you are at risk for possible hypothermia exposure.
Heat loss in your body during exposure to cold occurs primarily through the skin. Because of this, your body can lose heat 25 times faster while being immersed in cold water than it would to being exposed to cold air temperatures.
The takeaway? While you need to be cautious of exposing your body to extremely cold temperatures in any form, it is especially imperative to be alert of exposure to cold water.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
Now that you understand what hypothermia is and what causes it, you must know the symptoms of hypothermia to keep yourself safe and aware. While these symptoms may begin gradually, they are still warnings of what can occur and may not seem too extreme at first. It is important to be aware that even some of these “regular” feelings of being cold can lead to this more dangerous condition.
Stage 1 of Hypothermia
The beginning stages of hypothermia are probably familiar feelings: shivering and reduced circulation.
As the body temperature begins to drop, your body will most likely begin shivering in an attempt to warm itself. This is an automatic response for your body to defend itself from cold temperatures. When your body shivers, it shows that its heat regulation systems are still active, so this is not yet necessarily a bad sign—yet. However, you shouldn’t always look for shivering as a symptom because it will typically go away after this stage.
The next early stage of hypothermia is reduced circulation. When your body is cold, the blood vessels will constrict, causing reduced blood flow to areas such as hands and feet. Just like shivering, this is another one of your body’s attempts to reduce losing heat.
Stage 2 of Hypothermia
The next stages that occur in hypothermia are a sign of more than the regular symptoms of being cold, and should not be taken lightly. Be alert of what is happening past shivering and reduced circulation to know that these symptoms are more serious and may be leading to hypothermia.
Slow, Shallow Breathing
As the body temperature continues to drop, it gets more difficult to breathe. This is because exposure to cold air can irritate your lungs as the upper airways start to narrow. Cold air can disrupt the moisture layer in your lungs and lower airways, which causes it to evaporate faster than it can be replaced.
A weakening pulse occurs due to the lack of heat coming into the body. As the core body temperature continues to cool, your heart and liver—which produce the majority of your body heat—stop producing as much heat as a protective “shut down” response to conserve heat and protect the brain.2
Drowsiness & Low Energy
Another symptom of hypothermia is drowsiness and a lack of energy due to your organs and nervous system beginning to shut down.
Slurred Speech or Mumbling
As the body attempts to hold as much heat as it can as the body temperature lowers, slurred speech and mumbling may also occur.
Stage 3 of Hypothermia
In severe cases of hypothermia, the body temperature can drop to 82 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Below are the symptoms that happen in later stages of hypothermia.
Clumsiness & Lack of Coordination
Just as hypothermia will cause speech to slur or mumbling to occur, the body will also lack coordination, and one may feel clumsy. This may include fumbling the extremities, stumbling when trying to walk, or being unable to grip onto objects.
Confusion & Memory Loss
As the body continues to shut down due to lack of heat, one may feel confused, and end up losing some memory of what is happening. The brain—specifically the hypothalamus, which regulates body temperature—tries to work to raise body temperature, but may begin failing to do so as the body continues to be exposed to extreme cold.2
Loss of Consciousness
Once confusion and memory loss occurs, complete loss of consciousness may follow. During a loss of consciousness, one is neither completely awake nor aware of their surrounding environment. Prolonged loss of consciousness can lead to death if not followed up with immediately.
How to Prevent Hypothermia
The good news is that you can prevent hypothermia. Follow these tips to stay safe.
Get Out of the Cold
Since hypothermia occurs in cold temperatures, you can prevent your risk of getting hypothermia by getting out of the cold and staying in warmer temperatures.
Add Clothing Layers
One way that individuals can get hypothermia is by not wearing the proper attire for the surrounding temperatures. If your body starts to get too cold, add more layers of clothing to help regulate and add heat to your body.
Eating high-carb foods like pasta, beans, and sweet potatoes is a good way to stave off hypothermia. This is because high-carb foods take longer to digest and raise your body temperature. In general, many carbohydrates are not easily digestible, therefore having an effect of making you feel warmer. The term for this is called thermogenesis, and it is the process of heat being produced by the body due to food metabolizing.
Move Your Body
Most people know that performing exercise causes the body to heat up. By moving your body around, you have an increased heart rate and dilated blood vessels, which increases blood flow to the skin. Keep in mind that overexertion can cause you to sweat a lot, which can be more detrimental in cold weather. Be sure not to move around too much to cause your body to sweat and make your clothes wet in the cold.
Dehydration increases your risk of getting hypothermia, so ensuring that you stay hydrated is essential when in colder temperatures. Increased alcohol consumption can cause dehydration as it is a diuretic. Either avoid alcohol or make sure to drink enough water and fluids to keep you hydrated.
How to Treat Hypothermia
While it is typically easier to diagnose hypothermia since most symptoms are physically apparent, it is also important to pay attention to some of the less-severe symptoms as listed above. If you believe someone has hypothermia, it is important to take immediate action and get them the medical help that they need.
Until professional medical help is available, make sure to follow the below tips to help someone with hypothermia in need as outlined by the Mayo Clinic.
Gently Bring the Affected Person to Warmth
If possible, try to move the person to a warm and dry location to shield them from the cold. If you cannot escape the cold, try your best to shield them from it by laying their body face-up on a blanket and covering their entire body and head (leaving only their face exposed) with blankets or clothing. Be sure to handle him or her with care, as not to cause their body to have any vigorous or jarring movements, which can trigger cardiac arrest.
Remove Any Wet Clothes
If the person has wet clothes on, remove them and give them dry clothing or blankets. If it is difficult to remove their wet clothing, cut away the clothes to avoid excessive movement.
Watch Their Breathing
Since some symptoms of hypothermia are slow, shallow breathing, and possible unconsciousness, you must monitor their breathing to ensure that they do not stop breathing altogether. If the affected person stops breathing or their breathing appears dangerously low, you should begin to administer CPR immediately if you are trained to do so.
Apply a Warm, Dry Compress
While you do not want to apply direct heat such as in the form of a heating pad, hot water, or other variance since this can extreme heat can damage the skin, you can use a first-aid warm compress if available, or create a makeshift compress of warm water in a plastic bottle, or warm towel. The compress should only be applied to the neck, groin, or chest wall.
Give the Person Warm Liquids
As long as the person is alert and awake, you can try to give them any type of warm, sweet beverage to help warm their body. Remember to avoid alcoholic or caffeinated beverages, which are dehydrating.
What to Do About Frostbite
People who get hypothermia from cold temperatures are at higher risk of developing frostbite, which is an injury caused by the freezing of skin and underlying tissues. When the skin is exposed to extreme cold and wind, it is more vulnerable to developing frostbite.
Body parts that are the most susceptible to frostbite are the extremities such as fingers, toes, hands, feet, and even the nose and ears. Since these parts of the body are furthest away from the core, they are the first organs that will freeze due to decreased blood flow from the cold.
Just like hypothermia, frostbite occurs in several stages. It begins as frostnip, which doesn’t create permanent damage to the skin but leads to numbness in the affected area(s). Next, the skin will appear reddened, turning to white or pale. At this stage, the skin will feel warm and stinging, burning, and swelling may all occur. If the frostbite progresses, it will continue to affect more layers of the skin, including the deeper tissues. This can result in losing all sensation, and joints and muscles may stop working. Ultimately, large blisters will form and the area will turn black and hard as the tissue dies.
To avoid frostbite, try to protect the affected areas of skin from any further cold. Wear loose layers of clothes to keep you dry and warm and to protect your skin from wind exposure. Hats that cover your head and ear, insulated mittens or gloves, and warm socks are vital to keep your body warm and protect these areas vulnerable to frostbite.
If you feel early symptoms of frostbite starting to occur, try to get to a warm place. Avoid extremely hot water, which can cause further damage, and instead soak the affected areas in warm water around 104-107 degrees Fahrenheit. If your skin has already started to change color or becomes hard, the warm water doesn’t help the numbness go away, or you have severe pain as the skin thaws or blisters forming, you should seek immediate medical attention. Knowing proper frostbite care ahead of time can help you protect yourself if you feel hypothermia setting in.
Remember that hypothermia and frostbite can be prevented. Stay warm, be prepared for weather changes, and do not stay exposed to extreme cold temperatures for extended periods if possible.
If you expect that you or someone you know may have symptoms of hypothermia, follow the treatments outlined in this article to help the affected get to safety and improve their health.
By knowing the symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite, you can prevent yourself and others from being susceptible to these dangerous conditions and stay safe in the cold.