BY DIRK SCHROEDER, ScD, MPH*
Hypothermia occurs when a person's internal body temperature falls below normal. It usually happens on cold, wet, windy days, often at higher altitudes, to people who are tired, poorly clothed, and hungry. It is very dangerous. Often, a person doesn't realize what is happening. Mental confusion often accompanies hypothermia and may cause the person not to seek help. Extreme hypothermia can lead to death in just hours.
Wear proper clothing. Put on layers of clothes to insulate warmth against your body. A number of thinner articles of clothing will allow you to regulate your body temperature as you exercise. And since it's as important not to get over-heated as it is to be warm, the fabric should be loosely woven to allow water vapor from your skin to escape.
Polypropylene and wool are the best materials for under layers. Outer layers may need to be water- and windproof. You can lose up to 50 per cent of your body heat through your head and hands, so wear a loose woolen cap and mittens.
o Eat high-energy foods frequently and drink plenty of fluids.
o Avoid heavy physical exercise in cold environments. It can lead to heat loss, depletion of body fluids, and fatigue-all contributing factors to hypothermia.
o Stay warm, but avoid heavy sweating, which will evaporate and overly cool the skin and body.
o In bad weather, find protection from the wind and the elements.
o At first, uncontrolled shivering and pallor (pale skin).
o Then, confusion and dizziness, with slow, clumsy movements and walking.
o Extreme exhaustion/sleepiness.
o In advanced stages, shallow breathing and slow pulse rate.
o Possible loss of consciousness.
Treatment for Mild Hypothermia:
Warning: Heating up the person too fast can cause heart problems or even death. Rewarming should increase the person's body temperature at the rate of about 1° C per hour.
Quickly get the person to a dry place that is not windy.
Replace wet clothing with warm, dry clothes, making sure the head, feet, and hands are covered.
Put the victim in a sleeping bag or under dry (heated if available) blankets.
Have one or more people get in the sleeping bag also and hold the victim. Their body heat will warm the person who is hypothermic.
Have the person drink warm, sugared liquids (do not give alcohol) and eat sweet things such as candy or ripe fruit. If you do not have sweets, give whatever food is available; starchy foods such as bread and potatoes are good.
Encourage the victim to stay awake and move his or her legs and arms until body temperature returns to normal.
Treatment for severe hypothermia, including unconsciousness:
If the person stops shivering but still has any of the above signs, or is unconscious, the hypothermia is severe.
Remove all of the victim's clothes and put victim in the warmest sleeping bag or blankets available. Pile other sleeping bags and clothes on top.
Have two people remove their own clothes and get in the sleeping bag with the victim. Hold the victim tightly. Direct skin contact provides the most warmth.
You can use rocks that have been warmed in a fire and wrapped in cloth, and hot water bottles as additional sources of warmth.
If the victim is conscious, give warm, sweetened fluids (non-alcoholic).
Do not give an unconscious person food or drink.
If the person does not regain consciousness, get medical help fast.
Dirk Schroeder is the author of Staying Healthy in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Moon Travel Handbooks
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