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Hypothermia: a springtime hazard.


"What? Me, worry?" Andthe thought is that it always happens to the other guy. Right? Wrong! It can happen to any of us, and the "it" this fall-winter-spring season is hypothermia.

We've all heard theword, and we know it means something bad. Yet many people don't really know what hypothermia is or how it affects one's mental condition and physical reactions.

Hypothermia is asubnormal body-core temperature. As the temperature drops, things begin to happen in a predictable sequence until unconsciousness and death take over. It can and does happen in every environment and in every state.

The most importantthing to know about hypothermia is that it kills more people involved in outdoor recreation than are killed by anything else confronting outdoor enthusiasts. As temperatures fall, those working, hunting, fishing, trapping, or playing around water should be especially aware of the serious dangers of hypothermia.

Although cold rain or wet snowcombined with wind chill create classic conditions, hypothermia is not exclusively associated with winter weather and extreme cold. In the fall and spring when water temperatures are 50[deg.] F. or less and the air temperatures are even as high as 60 to 70 [deg.] F., hypothermia is possible. If a person falls in the water, the body-heat loss will be accelerated.

Simply put, hypothermia is a debilitatingcondition that occurs when the body loses heat faster than it produces it and the body's normal temperature (98.6[deg.] F.) drops dangerously low.

When hypothermia sets in, thedropping body temperature causes the heart to slow down. Victims become weak and confused as less oxygen is delivered throughout the body. Many people don't recognize the danger signs, and those alone often die needlessly.

The loss of innerbody temperature develops over an extended period while a person is exposed to rain and wind or during a short exposure when a person falls into cold water--the most serious circumstances.

If you fall into thewater from a boat, it is best to get in or on the capsized craft. Staying as far out of the water as possible will maintain more body heat and will prolong advanced symptoms. If getting out of the water is impossible and if you are wearing your flotation vest (which doubles your chances), you can increase your survival time by 50 percent by assuming the heat-escape-lessening posture (HELP), or fetal position.

If several people are in the water,use the "huddle" method to help each other preserve body heat.

The greatest heat loss is from thehead and neck, and these areas should be kept as high out of the water as possible. Under hypothermic conditions, avoid the drownproofing technique, because it requires putting your head in the water and will cause you to cool more than 80 percent faster than if floating with your head out of the water.

Swimming to shore can be a deadlydecision. The usual advice is to stay with the boat. Distances on the water are deceptive, and rescuers can more easily spot a capsized boat than a lone swimmer. Swimming burns up body heat, and in 50[def.] F. water even the best swimmers could not make a mile. Water chill is 24 times greater than wind chill.

Hypothermia is not somethingthat drags on for a long time. It can kill a person in an hour and a half in temperatures as high as 50[deg.] F. Because every victim is different in body size, health, amount of body fat, and resistance, circumstances vary. An intangible factor is the will to survive.

Once the condition begins affectingthe body, many people--even seasoned outdoor enthusiasts--are unable to counteract the process by themselves. When the blood to the brain is slowed, the mind fails to function correctly--yes, even for the best of us.

There are many symptoms, butit is usually another person who recognizes them. Frequently the person experiencing the symptoms becomes too disoriented to realize what is happening.

Ignore a victim's protests thateverything is O.K. Denial of being cold is common, and a hypothermic person may truly believe everything is all right. The victim's judgment is impaired, and he usually wants to drift off to sleep--which could be permanent.

Any of the following reactionsis probably a signal someone is suffering from hypothermia: difficulty with simple tasks (clumsy actions); dull eyes; listlessness; slurred speech; confusion; forgetfulness; fatigue; an inability to control the hands, arms, or legs; slow breathing; cold, stiff muscles; uncontrollable shivering or trembling; the stomach cold to the touch; or someone's dozing off and being hard to arouse.

What to do? Too often people tryto help but do the wrong thing for a hypothermic victim. These are some of the things you must NOT do: don't give alcohol or drugs; don't massage the arms or legs; don't raise the legs; don't put the person in a hot shower; and do not administer hot drinks or hot food.

What you should do is promptlycover the victim's head and neck to prevent further body-heat loss, keep the torso warm to maintain the vital organs, and handle the person gently. Call the local emergency room, rescue squad, ambulance, or doctor--depending on where you are and what medical facilities are quickly available.

Once it is determined a person is becominghypothermic, it is essential others offer aid to prevent additional body-heat loss. Skin-to-skin contact is an excellent way to transfer body heat.

If a person in the group has becomehypothermic, a field measure for rewarming is to strip the victim to the bare skin and place him in a sleeping bag or in a blanket with one or two rescuers who have also removed their clothing.

While waiting for medical help toarrive, immersing a person's hands and forearms in hot water may help. However, total immersion in hot water can cause shock.

Advanced hypothermia rendersa person unconscious. The skin turns bluish-gray, muscles are rigid, breathing is shallow, and the pulse is weak. Rewarming the victim is crucial, and medical assistance is essential.

Even if a person appears to bedead, continue to restore body heat. Often hypothermic victims appear lifeless, yet their vital organs continue to function--though at a much lower rate--and they are alive.

Have you heard of "afterdrop"? This occurs in a deeply hypothermic victim after being moved to a sheltered spot. As the person is rewarmed, the stagnated and cold blood from the extremities returns to the core of the body, dropping the internal temperature even lower. Just as the recirculation is started, death may occur.

When death does occur, the officialcause is frequently listed as something other than hypothermia. Victims in cold water lose control of their arms and legs and drown; those on land whose body temperature has dropped too low die of heart failure. Sometimes death is listed as "due to exposure," yet the real cause is hypothermia.

When heading outdoors duringquestionable weather to fish, hunt, camp, or just enjoy nature, dress properly. Several layers of loose clothing are better than tight clothes, and mittens are always warmer than gloves. Because much of the body's heat is lost through the head, a hat, cap, or stocking pullover will trap heat and allow your body to send more warm blood to your hands and feet. Most important, stay dry, and change clothes if they become damp or wet.

One of the best safeguards againsthypothermia is to eat hot meals and drink warm liquids before going out. This provides the nutrition and fuel your body needs to stay warm. In the field, do not allow yourself to become dehydrated, and keep nibbling on high-energy snacks to help maintain body heat.

If weather conditions worsen, seekshelter and protect yourself from the wet, wind, and cold.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:O'Toole, Joanne; O'Toole, Tom
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1987
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