How to Avoid Hypothermia
Along with winter’s cozy sweaters come significantly lower temperatures. For some, staying safe and warm through the winter months can be a challenge and even result in a serious, life-threatening health problem: hypothermia.
“When exposed to cold temperatures, whether indoors or outside, your body can begin to lose heat faster than it is produced,” explains Jeremy Baird, DO, an osteopathic emergency medicine physician from Cincinnati, Ohio. This prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy and result in a lower than normal core body temperature, or hypothermia.
Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can result in a dangerously low core body temperature, or hypothermia.
“Hypothermia is especially dangerous once a person’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit because organs like the heart and brain begin to be affected. This can cause a person to not think clearly or be able to move well,” says Dr. Baird. “The victim may not even know it is happening or be aware that they need help, and they often won’t do anything about it.”
A body temperature below 90 degrees is life-threatening, and can lead to a person slipping into a coma and appearing dead, with no signs of breathing or a pulse.
Recognize the Symptoms of Hypothermia
Warning signs of hypothermia include:
- Shivering, exhaustion
- Confusion, memory loss, slurred speech
- Weak pulse, slow heartbeat
- Very slow and shallow breathing
“Infants experiencing hypothermia often have bright red, cold skin and very low energy,” adds Dr. Baird.
If you notice any of the warning signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95°, the situation is an emergency and medical attention should be sought immediately.
Until medical care is available, Dr. Baird recommends the following to prevent further heat loss:
- Remove any wet clothes and wrap the victim in a warm blanket.
- Warm the center of the body first by applying an electric heating pad (set on low) or a hot water bottle to the person’s stomach and chest.
- If the victim is adequately alert, give them small quantities of warm food or drink.
“It is not recommended to put the victim in a hot shower or bath, as that may cause an unsafe drop in blood pressure and worsen the situation,” warns Dr. Baird.
A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and not seem to be breathing or have a pulse. However, Dr. Baird states, “many unconscious hypothermia victims have made complete recoveries once rewarmed, so it is important to administer appropriate resuscitation, like CPR, and warming techniques, until the person is transported to the hospital.”
Who’s at Risk?
Everyone is susceptible to hypothermia, but the elderly, infants, and people without shelter or who live in poorly insulated or unheated homes are especially at risk.
In the homes of infants and the elderly, keep the temperature set to at least 68 to 70 degrees.
“The elderly are particularly at risk because of decreased total body fat and the inability to adjust to changes in temperature as quickly. They may be unaware that they are gradually getting colder and therefore not take the needed precautions to avoid hypothermia,” says Dr. Baird.
Hypothermia can develop indoors due to poorly-insulated homes and prolonged exposure to air-conditioned rooms.
Keep yourself and family safe this winter by dressing in warm layers and changing out of wet clothes promptly to prevent hypothermia. If you must go out in wet, windy weather, dress appropriately to stay dry and avoid losing body heat. In the homes of infants and the elderly, keep the temperature at least 68 degrees to 70 degrees, especially in the sleeping area, and check on them regularly. Following these simple measures will help everyone stay healthy and warm during the cold months of winter.