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Your Guide to Hypothermia: Warning Signs and Prevention

Hypothermia may occur when your core body temperature drops below 96 F. The condition can cause changes in bodily functions including your heart rate. Over time, subnormal temperature will stop the heart completely. People can recover from severe hypothermia, but they must often receive immediate and complete medical support.

The Risk of Hypothermia

Winter represents the most significant risk for hypothermia, but individuals can succumb to the condition in any chilly conditions. If you factor in wind chill, water temperature, and the presence of insulating clothing, someone may experience mild hypothermia in relatively warm environments. In water, even 60–70 F water can cause the onset of hypothermia over time. On land, a temperature of 50–60 F with a colder wind chill and wet conditions can contribute to the onset of hypothermia.

Hypothermia Warning Signs

If you notice any of the following warning signs in yourself or others, reach out for medical support:

  • Loss of consciousness. In severe hypothermia, individuals may fall into a stupor due to a lack of oxygen.
  • Uncontrollable shivering. People shiver to raise their core body temperatures. This typical sign of coldness can turn into a hypothermia warning sign if noticed in conjunction with other symptoms or if the person in question does not respond to warming treatments.
  • Confusion, speech changes, and clumsiness. A lower core temperature will quickly affect the circulatory and central nervous systems. If someone stumbles, can’t engage in normal conversation, or doesn’t understand his or her surroundings in a cold environment, begin treatment for hypothermia.
  • Changes of color and feeling in extremities. Redness is the first sign of extreme cold. Over time, exposure to extremely cold environments may cause tingling or stabbing pain and then numbness. During severe hypothermia, an individual’s fingertips and lips may turn blue or purple, indicating a lack of oxygen.

During mild cold exposure, exercise, ingesting warm liquids, and bundling up may reverse the condition. However, if an individual acts despondently, feels cold to the touch, or loses consciousness, he or she may require more extreme therapies.

Tips for Preventing Hypothermia

Under normal circumstances, everyone can take steps to reduce the risk of hypothermia and stay warm during cold weather. Use these tips to prepare for cold weather and unexpected circumstances:

  • Protect yourself with layers. Wear breathable layers of clothing to reduce moisture and sweat levels and keep yourself cold. Remember a hat, gloves, and waterproof boots every time you head outside in the cold or snowy weather.
  • Stay dry. Sweat and moisture will cause your body temperature to drop more quickly. Remove wet clothing and avoid exercise or other sweat-inducing activities. If you plan to spend a long period of time in a colder environment, keep a dry change of clothing nearby to keep you warm.
  • Eat up and hydrate. Eat well balanced meals to keep your blood sugar balanced and your body performing properly. Stay hydrated using warm liquids to keep your core temperature warm and use the restroom frequently. A full bladder can make you feel colder.
  • Use warming products. Keep instant hand warmers, a fire starter, and compact space blankets on hand for emergency situations. After a vehicle breakdown or another unexpected event, a small cold weather emergency kit can keep you warm until help arrives.
  • Do not drink alcohol in cold weather. While alcohol makes you feel warmer, it only distracts users from the reality of the situation. People may succumb to cold environments more quickly if using alcohol or drugs.

Treating Mild Hypothermia

In the beginning stages of hypothermia, fast action can prevent a more serious and life-threatening episode. If you cannot access emergency services and need to warm someone up, remove all wet clothing. Share body heat to keep heat from radiating away into the environment. Eat something, drink warm liquids, and stay in a protected location. Remember wind chill and rain can turn mild temperatures into deadly ones.