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Hypothermia - OutdoorPlaces.Com

 Hypothermia Guide


The good news is that hypothermia is a very survivable medical condition.  If the body temperature is between 90° degrees F. and 96° degrees F. a full recovery is almost completely assured.  From 80° degrees F. to 89.9° degrees F. a recovery is quite possible with proper medical treatment but there may be some long-term effects.  Below 79.9° degrees F. recovery is possible but rare, and medical complications are all but assured.  One of the most important rules of hypothermia, no one is dead until they are warm and dead.  When dealing with a victim of hypothermia all efforts should be made to sustain life until they have been properly warmed by a medical facility.

Treatment for hypothermia is rather simple, but the proper treatment needs to be administered during different phases of the medical condition.  During impending and mild hypothermia, getting into a dry and warm environment are critical.  Windy conditions and wet clothes are enemies.  Warm, sweet, non-alcoholic fluids ingested slowly help, as does high-energy food that puts fuel on the internal fires.  Bundling up in a blanket or sleeping bag also can help.

When a person has moderate hypothermia you should get the person bundled up and out of the cold, covering the neck and head as almost 50 percent of heat loss happens here is critical.  Sudden movement and physical activity should be avoided.  You can apply warm bottles of water, or warm rocks to the armpits and groin area (comfortably warm when touched by a hand flat on the stone and held in place).  Fully conscious victims can sip luke-warm sweetened, non-alcoholic fluids.  If their condition is clearly improving then more fluids and warmth can be administered.  Medical attention should be sought out, even if a full field recovery is achieved.

With severe hypothermia the focus should change to maintaining body temperature.  Improper warming can create a condition called metabolic acidosis that can cause shock and heart failure.  Warming should only be preformed in these states by a medical facility.  In severe cases surgery may be performed to bypass the extremities and warm the core first through bypass.  The critical thing when a person has severe hypothermia is to be gentle with them.  Sudden or rough movements, forcing them to move or walk can pull very cold blood from the extremities into the warmer core that can cause shock.  You need to be gentle and supportive.  Rubbing the skin, moving of the joints should be avoided; this causes more harm than good.  In severe hypothermia it is best for three people to get under a pile of blankets or in a sleeping bag.  Skin on skin contact of the torso works best with a person on each side of the victim.  You should ignore their pleas to be left alone or allowed to go to sleep, but be gentle with them.  You should not administer fluids or make any other attempts to increase body temperature.  Maintaining temperature and stemming further loss is the most important thing.

If a person becomes unconscious from hypothermia you need to monitor their breathing and pulse carefully.  If you can detect a faint pulse do not do CPR to support their heart.  Only start rescue breathing, chest compressions or full CPR if you cannot detect any breathing, any pulse or both.  Check frequently to see if they start breathing on their own, even if it is shallow, the same for a pulse.  Administering CPR to someone, even someone with a slight pulse can cause his or her heart to stop.  Remember, make all efforts to keep them alive until help arrives, they have been warmed and declared dead.  People have recovered in morgues from hypothermia and have had profoundly low body temperatures and still recover.  Never give up hope with a hypothermia victim that does not have any other serious medical complications (like severe injuries from a fall or extreme altitude sickness).

Hypothermia is such an insidious killer because it can hit with a sudden jolt (like in a cold water immersion) and can kill in minutes.  Likewise as the core temperature cools gradually and judgment fails, poor decisions by the victim can lead to more serious injury or death.  Proper education on the identification and treatment of hypothermia is very critical.  Rescuers and hiking partners can mean well, but through their actions can make the condition more serious.  To help prevent hypothermia you should follow some basic rules:

  • Don't drink alcoholic beverages, this only increases heat loss.

  • Eat carbohydrate loaded energy foods and drink plenty of warm fluids in cold weather to keep the internal fires going.  Avoid heavy meals that cause blood to pool in the digestive system.

  • Urinate frequently.  Don't waste body heat maintaining the temperature of a bladder full of urine.

  • Wear a hat; almost a full 50 percent of heat loss is through the head.

  • Wear proper layers for the prevailing conditions.  Pack for contingencies like rain if you’re hiking or an accidental immersion if you are paddling.

  • Remember hypothermia can happen on a sunny day near 70° degrees F.  Don't deny the early symptoms.

  • Always experience the outdoors with a plan and leave instructions with a trusted friend, relative, co-worker or ranger.

The most important thing is don't allow yourself to become a victim.  Always be prepared for any contingency.  If your paddling wear the proper gear and clothing, dry suits, wet suits as needed.  If your hiking dress in layers, stay out of the wind and keep dry.  Wear a hat and keep the extremities warm.  If you get the early signs of hypothermia do not ignore them.  Proper action early can keep you out of the emergency room, and enjoying the great outdoors.  

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