North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

December 8, 2009

As cold winter months approach, watch out for signs of hypothermia

Health Watch By Sherry Mullenix

The North Jefferson News

Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is around 98.6 Fahrenheit (37 Celsius). Hypothermia occurs as your body temperature passes below 95 Fahrenheit (35 Celsius).

When your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs cannot work correctly. Left untreated, hypothermia eventually leads to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and to death.

Hypothermia is most often caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in a cold body of water. Primary treatments are methods to warm the body back to a normal temperature.

Shivering is your body’s automatic defense against cold temperature — an attempt to warm itself. Constant shivering is a key sign of hypothermia. Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:

• Shivering

• Clumsiness or lack of coordination

• Slurred speech or mumbling

• Stumbling

• Confusion or difficulty thinking

• Poor decision making, such as trying to remove warm clothes

• Drowsiness or very low energy

• Apathy, or lack of concern about one’s condition

• Progressive loss of consciousness

• Weak pulse

• Shallow breathing

A person with hypothermia usually isn’t aware of his or her condition, because the symptoms often begin gradually and because the confused thinking associated with hypothermia prevents self-awareness.

Hypothermia isn’t always the result of exposure to extremely cold outdoor temperatures. An older person may develop mild hypothermia after prolonged exposure to indoor temperatures that would be tolerable to a younger or healthier adult — for example, temperatures in a poorly heated home.

In such cases, mild hypothermia may result in vague symptoms, and the typical shivering may not be present at all. Symptoms of mild hypothermia not related to extreme cold exposure may include:

• Confusion

• Lack of coordination

• Dizziness

• Nausea or vomiting

• Fatigue

How your body loses heat

The mechanisms of heat loss from your body include the following:

• Radiated heat: Most heat loss is due to heat radiated from unprotected surfaces of your body. Your head has a large surface area and accounts for about half of all heat loss.

• Direct contact: If you’re in direct contact with something very cold, such as cold water or the cold ground, heat is conducted away from your body. Because water is very good at transferring heat from your body, body heat is lost much faster in cold water than in cold air. Water that is 65 Fahrenheit (18 Celsius) — a relatively mild air temperature — can lead to hypothermia very quickly. Similarly, heat loss from your body is much faster if your clothes are wet, as when you’re caught out in the rain.

• Wind: Wind removes body heat by carrying away the thin layer of warm air at the surface of your skin.

First aid care

• Be gentle: When you are helping a person with hypothermia, handle him or her gently. Limit movements to only those that are necessary. Don’t massage or rub the person. Excessive, vigorous or jarring movements may trigger cardiac arrest.

• Move the person out of the cold: Move the person to a warm, dry location if possible. If you’re unable to move the person out of the cold, shield him or her from the cold and wind as much as possible.

• Remove wet clothing: If the person is wearing wet clothing, remove it. Cut away clothing if necessary to avoid excessive movement.

• Cover the person with blankets: Use layers of dry blankets or coats to warm the person. Cover the person’s head, leaving only the face exposed.

• Insulate the person’s body from the cold ground: If you’re outside, lay the person on his or her back on a blanket or other warm surface.

• Monitor breathing: A person with severe hypothermia may appear unconscious, with no apparent signs of a pulse or breathing. If the person’s breathing has stopped or appears dangerously low or shallow, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately if you’re trained.

• Provide warm beverages: If the affected person is alert and able to swallow, provide a warm, nonalcoholic, noncaffeinated beverage to help warm the body.

• Use warm, dry compresses: Use a first-aid warm compress (a plastic fluid-filled bag that warms up when squeezed), or a makeshift compress of warm water in a plastic bottle or a dryer-warmed towel. Apply a compress only to the neck, chest wall or groin. Don’t apply a warm compress to the arms or legs. Heat applied to the arms and legs forces cold blood back toward the heart, lungs and brain, causing the core body temperature to drop. This can be fatal.

• Don’t apply direct heat: Don’t use hot water, a heating pad or a heating lamp to warm the person. The extreme heat can damage the skin or induce cardiac arrest.

Using some simple common sense can prevent or reduce the potential for hypothermia, but remember you don’t have to be in an extremely cold environment to encounter hypothermia.

Sherry Mullenix (J.D., R.N.) co-owns The Pharmacy in Mount Olive with her husband, Steve Mullenix (R.Ph). They can be reached at 631-1201.