Hypothermia is one of those conditions that is often discussed and yet rarely described as anything more than simply being out in the cold for too long. The reality is quite a bit more complex and the consequences of ignoring the symptoms often lead to extreme end results, sometimes even death.
What Is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a condition where a person’s body temperature is significantly lower than it should be, often to the point where remaining in that condition is both dangerous and life-threatening.
Body temperature is ideally at 37 degrees. Once the body drops below the 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) threshold – the technical point at which a body can be said to be hypothermic has set in.
What Causes Hypothermia?
Hypothermia can occur in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it occurs through sheer human stupidity, wearing t-shirts and shorts in sub-zero temperatures, for instance. Other times it occurs in unfortunate situations, like being drenched wet in a cold location and not having the ability to dry off. It can also occur if you’re in cold water for too long.
The technical definition is pretty basic; we all understand what hypothermia is on this level, but the reality is that while it may feel pretty abstract and one of those “impossible-to-happen-to-me” kinds of things, hypothermia is definitely something that easily can happen to all of us with just a little bit of bad luck.
Writing about hypothermia and just saying – “keep warm, duh,” is just a glib statement that ignores the reality of our environments and our ability to control them.
When I moved to Canada, I was wholly unprepared for the cold. Cold here in the UK is very different from cold in Canada. You can of course get hypothermia in the UK if you don’t take basic precautions (it’s raining, don’t get drenched wet – if you’re drenched, go dry off, simple), but in Canada, those freezing cold temperatures make it much more of a threat if you don’t take specific precautions.
Imagine the power goes out and the outside temperature is in the -20 degree Celsius range? That’s a dangerous situation to be in. How about driving between cities and having your car break down during winter – when you just so happened to be on a rural, unfrequented road with no cellphone reception?
You get the idea. We all know that keeping warm is important, but shit happens. The best thing you can possibly do for yourself is know how to deal with problems that may occur, and not just hope for the best.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
How can you spot whether or not someone is hypothermic? These are the symptoms of the condition:
- Cold, clammy & pale skin.
- Substantial shivering.
- Lethargy (Lack of energy and motivation, patient will not want to deal with the problem proactively).
- Weak pulse.
- Slow, laboured breathing.
- Loss of balance and fine motor skills, basically clumsiness.
- Loss of patience, irritability is common as well as anxiety.
- Speech becomes slurred.
Warning: What Never to Do for a Hypothermic Individual
There are a number of things you should never do for a person who’s hypothermic. Avoid these like the plague.
1. Never heat up the individual’s body too quickly.
The most important lesson. Do not put a hypothermic person in a hot bath. Also never use a hot water bottle or electric blanket to heat a hypothermic individual directly. Don’t warm up a hypothermic person quickly.
Your goal is to get the patient to warm up gradually, slowly, and evenly. Do not let a person who has hypothermia warm up too quickly, as it can lead to a heart attack and to their death.
2. Never give alcohol to someone suffering from hypothermia.
It literally makes the hypothermia worse. It’s a very common myth that giving a hypothermia patient alcohol will get the individual better – it’s not true; do not do it.
Alcohol moves blood to the skin, which is why you feel warmer when you ingest it. But it takes this heat from your core (where you need it when you have hypothermia) to move it to your skin. It’s better to lose a finger or two to frostbite if it keeps you alive – your body knows this, which is why it lets your extremities get cold before it lets your core get cold. Mixing alcohol in at a time like this prevents your body from being able to do this job.
3. Do not give food to a hypothermic individual who cannot swallow.
It’s possible for those with hypothermia to choke on food considering the symptoms of hypothermia, so if you’re going to give them something warm to ingest, it’s better to stick to liquids like soups, teas, and hot chocolates. Even then, encourage small sips rather than throwing back the entire drink in one go. The goal is to make sure you heat the individual up slowly and steadily.
The NHS website points out that you can give high-energy foods like chocolate to help a hypothermic individual so long as they can swallow normally: “Ask them to cough to see if they can swallow.” If you’re in doubt and have options, however, stick to liquids and encouraging small sips, as that’s much safer.
4. Do not encourage a hypothermic individual to exercize.
A person can and should exercize before they get hypothermia – to prevent it from taking place. But once a person is hypothermic, he or she should not exercize to get out of that state? Why? As Outdoor Life puts it: “the loss of critical body heat can result in a loss of dexterity, poor mental state, a loss of consciousness, and all kinds of clumsiness. Trying to jog or do any vigorous exercise will definitely tire you out. You could even fall, adding broken bones to your hypothermia situation. Skip the jumping jacks and get into dry clothing, or a warm shelter, or the proximity of a roaring fire. Don’t try to walk off this injury.”
5. Don’t let a hypothermic person go to sleep.
Keep them awake. Drowsiness is a byproduct of the lethargy an individual will feel as a result of being hypothermic. But if you let them go to sleep, they may never wake up, so do your best to keep them awake.
6. Don’t assume that if a hypothermic person stops shivering, you’re out of the woods.
When core body temperature drops to a low enough point, a hypothermic individual will stop shivering completely. After that point, he or she will begin to feel extremely drowsy and begin to lose consciousness. This is not a good sign. It means severe hypothermia has set in. As the NHS website suggests, at this point, hypothermic individuals “won’t appear to have a pulse or be breathing. If you know how to do it, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) should be given while you wait for help to arrive.”
7. Don’t assume that if the hypothermic person warmed back up, you don’t need to visit a hospital.
Call emergency services anyway. Tell medical assistance what happened and follow their instructions. Let them take the individual to a hospital. Make sure everything checks out because it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Treatment: What to Do for Someone Who Is Hypothermic
Now that we’ve got the warnings out of the way, it’s time to discuss what you should do for a hypothermic individual.
Hypothermia is either going to happen to someone who is or isn’t able to get a nice, warm spot to heat back up. Obviously, it’s ideal to have access to a warm place to recover, but if that isn’t possible due to circumstances or location, there are still ways to treat the hypothermic individual so that they recover from the hypothermia.
How to Treat Hypothermia Inside
Access to a warm location sheltered from the elements? Use as many of these tips to slowly and steadily get core body temperature up:
- Seek emergency help ASAP and keep the patient conscious whilst checking for frostbite.
- Replace wet clothes with dry clothes immediately.
- Reheat the patient slowly using a warm (not hot) bath – around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Place the patient in a comfortable position, ideally a bed, with ample blankets on top.
- Provide warm liquids. Soup (or similar) is the ideal.
How to Treat Hypothermia Outside
Haven’t got access to a warm location sheltered from the elements? Use as many of these tips to get core body temperature up (again, slowly and steadily):
- Seek emergency help ASAP and keep the patient conscious whilst checking for frostbite.
- Replace wet clothes with dry ones if possible.
If you are in the unique circumstance of being drenched with water, in a cold climate, with no available dry change of clothes, remove clothes and perform a vigorous physical activity like jumping jacks whilst you try to figure out an alternative. At the very least, this will allow you to wring your clothes to a damp level of moisture instead of soaking wet.
- Attempt to find or create a form a shelter, at least something that blocks the brunt of the elements (i.e. wind & rain). Especially important if strong winds or rain are abound.
- Try to get a fire lit so that its heat can slowly help with increasing the individual’s body temperature.
- If they are available to you, use dry blankets and/or extra clothes to insulate.
- Use dry, insulating material (ex. dry leaves) if it’s possible to find to lay on top of, underneath, or stuff within the clothing of the hypothermic individual.
This may be a hard task in the outdoors in averse conditions, especially in locations where it snows, but if you can find, say, dried leaves that were sheltered by being in a cave, use them to your advantage.
- If possible, serve hot drinks or soup; small sips though. Remember you’re trying to get temperatures up slowly and steadily.
How Can You Prevent Getting Hypothermia?
Now on to the good stuff. Best way to treat being prevention and all that. Even more true of hypothermia considering how much easier it is to prevent it than it is to treat it.
Your goal: keep up core body temperature above 35; ideally at around 37.
How can you do that?
1. Dress according to your environment.
The best ways to prevent hypothermia is not a surprise: we all know we’re supposed to be dressing warm when it’s cold and dressing light when it’s hot. Don’t be stupid, make sure you stick to the obvious.
2. Do your best not to get your clothes wet (with water or sweat) in cold environments.
When your clothes get wet, because you were sweating or because it rained on you for instance, that water will begin to wick away your body heat, essentially “stealing” heat from you so that it can use that heat to evaporate. Don’t get wet and you won’t have this “heat theft” problem.
3. If your clothes do get wet (with water or sweat) while you’re in a cold environment, take them off and get them dry.
If you’ve ever watched wilderness survival shows, often you will see survival gurus take off layers of their clothes after strenuous activity in extremely cold conditions. Many get confused as to why (“It’s so cold!! Aren’t you just giving yourself more of a chance to catch hypothermia?“). As someone who has shoveled numerous driveways’ worth of snow, I can tell you firsthand that this is a smart way to do things – sweat can be an unsuspected killer.
Sweat will wick away your body’s heat (think about it, your body’s intention when it created it was to cool you down because you were too hot). Thus, should you find yourself in such a situation, or worse – drenched from the water of a frozen lake, you should take off your wet clothes and do everything you can to dry them ASAP. Meanwhile, to keep yourself warm, you should be doing exercises to keep yourself warm and your core body temperature up. Standard jumping jacks will do the trick.
If you’re wet and you’ve got clothes on you, the water or sweat from those clothes will take your body heat to evaporate – meaning less heat for you and a higher chance of getting hypothermia. If you couldn’t prevent yourself from getting wet, which is ideal, get those clothes off and dry them while keeping yourself warm with exercize.
4. Layer your clothing so you can add or remove layers as you get colder or hotter.
The best way to make sure you don’t get rained on is to find some place that will shield you from the rain ’til the rain passes. The best way to make sure you don’t get drenched in sweat is by layering your clothing. I’ll explain.
Going back to shovelling snow; I would often go out in a heavy parka and come back in wearing just a tank top – and yes, of course, all in sub-zero temperatures. The reality is that exercize is going to get your temperature up. The more strenuous the activity, the higher your body temperature will get, and if you’re trying to avoid sweating (which, as I’ve already said, you should be), you should be paying attention to your body’s shift in temperature (i.e. your body temperature increasing as you do more physical labour) and reacting to that shift by removing layers of clothing so that you don’t end up sweating too much – or at all, if you can manage it.
As much as physically possible, you want to be in a situation where you control your own body’s temperature. The worst case scenario is where your environment dictates how warm you are. Layering allows you the opportunity to adjust on the fly so you can react to your environment and take your body temperature into your own hands. Going into the outdoors with a t-shirt and a heavy parka is a surefire way to tempt Sod’s law (“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”). If you are out and about in cold weather and your parka gets wet with sweat – that’s a bad situation to be in. You could leave your coat on, which is terrible considering the fact that the water will essentially steal your body heat, or you can face the cold in nothing but a t-shirt, which also leaves you damn cold. Either case is a bad option, and whilst I would personally opt for the t-shirt option coupled with extra exercise, it’s not ideal.
In Canada, going out to shovel snow, I’d typically wear a tank top, t-shirt, wool sweater/cardigan or zip up hoodie, and then a parka, along with scarves, hats, and insulated trousers even throwing on a pair of long johns underneath if the weather was really brutal. With that many layers, I could keep peeling away at the layers and keep my body temperature just right as I started warming up over time from the exercize.
5. Be attentive to your body’s shifts in temperature.
The tips above are only good insofar as you’re paying attention to your body.
How can you possibly avoid getting wet by sweating if you don’t realize you’re heating up fairly quickly by just speed walking to another location?
If you’re getting too hot and you realize it, you can take small pieces of clothing like hats and mitts off, remove layers, lift your coat to the wind if it’s too cold to completely take it off, take a break from the physical activity you’re doing so you get a chance to cool down – you get the picture. There’s a lot you can do to cool yourself down if you know you need to in order to prevent sweating.
If you’re getting too cold and you realize it, there are also always things you can do; many steps you can take to prevent getting too cold if you’re aware that a problem is coming. Even if you have no way of getting inside a nice, warm building, you can do things like find shelter from the wind, stuff your coat with dry leaves that will act as insulation, or even jumping jack exercises, as I’ve already mentioned. You can’t do any of this pre-emptively to prevent hypothermia if you aren’t even aware of your body temperature’s decreasing.
6. To prevent hypothermia in babies: pay close attention to their body temperature for them.
With infants, you have to be incredibly careful with hypothermia, as babies cannot regulate their own body temperatures. They also may find it more than a little difficult telling you they’re getting cold seeing as how they can’t speak, if they realize they’re getting cold at all. Bare this in mind when you are out and about with your baby in cold weather, and make sure to check in frequently to make sure baby’s temperature is still great.
How To Prepare Yourself In Case You Need to Treat Hypothermia
Hope for the best and do all that you can to prevent hypothermia, of course, but chances are you may still have to treat hypothermia anyway (your own or someone else’s). How can you be prepared in such a circumstance?
In your house
- Have extra blankets and duvets.
- Have a gas or propane heater around in case the power goes out. Of course also make sure you have fuel for it or it’s useless.
- Stock food (especially soup) that is easily re-heatable, and keep a camp stove or a propane/butane cooker, again, in case the power goes out.
- Invest in some good sub-zero degree sleeping bags – they’re excellent for indoor use when the power is out.
- More tips? Learn how to stay warm indoors in freezing weather when the power’s out.
In your car
- Always have a spare change of clothes.
- Blankets always useful.
- Portable camp stove and sachets or cans of soup and tea bags would be great + water bottles in case the soups need added water.
- A backup phone just in case your primary communication device fails.
- Again – super handy: sub zero rated sleeping bag.
- A way to start a fire is also an excellent idea; whether this is a lighter or matches or both.
- Flare gun might also be a good idea to signal for help with (depending on your jurisdiction – it should be legal though).
- If you’d like to make sure all your bases are covered check this list of supplies that would be good to stock in case there’s ever a winter emergency.
Hypothermia is a silent killer. If your body’s core temperature drops to dangerous levels without assistance or the ability to deal with the situation pro-actively, it’s likely to result in severe injuries (like serious frostbite for instance) or death.
It’s easy to see why people die from hypothermia when you take the time to realize that bad situations can be completely down to bad luck and bad weather; but when hypothermia is so preventable, it’s a shame that there are any deaths because of it at all.
Educating yourself by learning about the kinds of situations that could lead to hypothermia, training yourself to be attentive to your core body temperature when threats do pop up, and knowing the different techniques you can use to warm up the human body slowly whether you’re inside or out in the wilderness – these are your best bets in combating hypothermia. Who knows, with this knowledge, you may even end up saving a life, whether it’s your own or someone else’s, from the life threatening condition.
More First Aid Resources
When it comes to first aid, you need two important things to help you on your quest to keep yourself and those around you safe & healthy: knowledge and (to a lesser extent) supplies. To tackle the prior, take a look through our list of the top 22 emergency & survival first aid books and grab those that you think will best help you gain the knowledge you’ll need. For the latter, take a look at our Ultimate First Aid Supplies List to see if there’s anything you should be adding to your at-home first aid supplies stockpile, or if there’s something you’ve forgotten to add to one of your first aid kits.
Do you know how to tell if a cut is infected, whether to use Advil, Tylenol, or Aspirin, and how to quickly assess and address emergency situations? Did you know you can superglue cuts and that Imodium is an excellent tool for survival?
Have some spare time? Browse through all the first aid articles on this blog, to see if there’s anything valuable you’ve yet to learn on the topics we’ve written about.