How to

20 April 2016

How to Deal with the Onset of Hypothermia

When discussing the potential dangers of cold-weather exploration, travel, or even sport to some extent, the first thing to spring to most people’s minds will be hypothermia. The debilitating condition has claimed the lives of many intrepid explorers throughout human history; it has even famously turned the tide of wars. As such, it would be foolish to underestimate its effect.

Img source: Warner Bros
The problem is, although most of the world are now aware of the danger posed, less are equipped to deal with it should they become a victim of the onset of hypothermia. However, before we delve into the tactics and techniques required to survive such conditions, we need a proper understanding of what exactly hypothermia is.
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Hypothermia occurs when body temperate drops from its usual, around 37C (98.6F), to below 35C (95F). That may seem like a small drop in the grand scheme of things, but the affect it has on your body is significant, and potentially life-threatening.

Diagnosing hypothermia is something many people struggle with, being unsure as to when it has gone beyond simply ‘being cold’. The warning signs include drowsiness, difficulty breathing, loss of judgement/reasoning (disorientated victims have been known to attempt to remove clothing despite the extreme cold), and increasingly violent shivering. Just to throw a spanner in the works of that theory, however, as the hypothermia increases in severity the shivering will stop entirely. This does not mean the danger has passed. In fact, it means quite the opposite.

Once the warnings signs are recognised, immediate treatment is vital. For mild or moderate cases, hospital treatment may not be necessary but you need to act quickly. First and foremost, try to move the affected individual indoors or, failing that, somewhere comparatively warm. Remove any wet clothing and wrap the victim in blankets, coats or something similar, focusing first on their head and torso in order to protect vital organs. You should also encourage them to shiver, if they are capable, as this serves as your body’s natural warming system. Warm, non-alcoholic drinks and high-energy foods such as chocolate will also help to raise their temperature, but be sure that they are able to properly swallow before attempting to force this upon them. This can be tested by asking them to cough.

There are also a few common mistakes that you should take care not to make in such a situation. As mentioned before, alcohol should definitely be avoided, but the other potential pitfalls may not be so obvious. While it may seem logical to place the victim into a hot bath to warm up, or seat them in front of heaters, this will cause their body to warm too rapidly, expanding blood vessels and leading to a fall in blood pressure to the vital organs. Simply massaging their limbs can be enough to cause this, and the result is often fatal.

If the hypothermia progresses in severity, causing shivering to cease, complete loss of consciousness and an undetectable pulse, this will require urgent medical treatment in hospital. Dial 999 (in the UK) and, if you know how to do it safely, perform CPR until help arrives. Hospital staff will have access to more advanced techniques they can use to try to prevent loss of life, such as temporarily removing blood from the body to be warmed manually.

Of course, the hope is that you will never need to utilise the above advice. Prevention is always the more desirable route. In daily life, simple measures can be taken to avoid problems, such as ensuring your home is adequately sealed and heated. Older people living alone are offered a winter fuel payment from the government to help with this. For hiking trips, expeditions, or even just camping in more extreme environments, however, you will need some specialist equipment.

The long days, level of exertion and simply the amount of time spent outside in such conditions will take a toll on your body, so unless you’re properly prepared you will invariably hit difficulty. The correct clothing is possibly the most important factor in sub-zero environments, but simply piling on the layers is unlikely to achieve the desired effect. Rather, you should look to specialist ranges specifically designed for extreme conditions. Supplement your outerwear with sufficient thermal base-layers to achieve the best results.

Of course, your preparation should go beyond thinking about what to wear. You will need decent containers/flasks to carry nutritional supplies (Thermos’ high performance range comes highly recommended), as well as a survival pack including a compass, a knife, some way to start a fire, a first-aid kit and some form of signalling device in case you run into trouble. This list constitutes just a fraction of what you will ultimately need before you embark, but that is covered in greater detail elsewhere.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.