Cold weather can be dangerous. Learn how to prevent hypothermia, who is at risk, and symptoms you should watch for to stay safe this winter.
When your body temperature becomes too low, it affects your ability to think clearly or move well. Eventually, your internal organs stop functioning properly, slowing your heart rate and breathing. If left untreated, hypothermia can be fatal.
How to prevent hypothermia
The first step in knowing how to prevent hypothermia is understanding who is at risk. People at with greatest risk for hypothermia include:
- Older adults
- Babies in cold rooms
- Hikers or campers
- The homeless
- Heavy drinkers or drug users
Anyone without shelter or adequate clothing during cold weather
The second step in preventing hypothermia is to take adequate precautions. The best way to do this is by avoiding extremely cold environments.
When the temperature outside is very low, stay indoors in a heated space. If you must go outside in extremely cold weather, take precautions such as telling others where you are going and what time you expect to return, and do not drink or use drugs.
Appropriate cold-weather clothing will also help prevent hypothermia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing:
- A hat
- A knit mask or scarf that covers your face, mouth, and neck
- Water-resistant boots and coat
- Multiple loose-fitting layers of clothing
- Mittens or gloves that completely cover your hands and fingers
Even with appropriate clothing, you are at risk for hypothermia if you are in the cold for extended periods of time, are sick, or become wet and chilled. Be alert to symptoms of hypothermia, and do not ignore shivering: it is the first sign that your body is losing heat. Persistent shivering indicates that you should go inside as quickly as possible.
If you become stranded outside in cold weather, move your arms and legs to keep your circulation going. Huddle together with others for warmth, and avoid getting wet or perspiring. Do not eat unmelted snow, as this can lower your body temperature dangerously.
Finally, take care to prevent hypothermia even when staying inside. Babies and elderly adults in particular are especially at risk for developing hypothermia indoors. Run the heat inside and wear warm layers such as socks, long underwear, and sweaters. If you have elderly relatives, the National Institute on Ageing recommends checking on them during the winter to make sure they are taking precautions to stay warm and prevent hypothermia.
Can you get hypothermia in the summer?
Though hypothermia is most likely to develop during winter weather, your body can become too cold at any time of the year. The National Institutes of Health warns that babies and elderly adults are at risk if they are in a space that is heavily air conditioned, as are people on certain medications, using drugs, or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.
You can also develop hypothermia if you become wet and chilled, for example from rain or falling in cold water. No matter the time of year, if your body has trouble raising its core temperature, you are at risk for hypothermia.
What are the symptoms of hypothermia?
Hypothermia can happen slowly, making it difficult to spot, especially as mental function slows down. Because of this, if you are out in cold weather with other people, it is important to watch each other for early symptoms of hypothermia, including:
- Fatigue or low energy
- Fumbling, clumsiness, or poor coordination
- Slurred speech
- Memory loss
Symptoms of more advanced hypothermia are:
- Lack of shivering
- Dilated pupils
- Blue skin
- Slowed breathing and pulse
- Loss of consciousness
Infants or young children with hyothermia may show:
● Bright red skin that is cold to the touch
● Very low energy
How to treat hypothermia
If you notice symptoms of hypothermia, or if a person has a body temperature of 95° or below, call for emergency medical care or take them to a hospital as quickly as possible.
If you must provide first aid for someone with hypothermia, get them to a warm environment quickly, remove any wet clothing, and cover them with warm, dry blankets or put them in an insulated sleeping bag. Do not massage or rub their limbs to create friction, as this can make symptoms worse. You should also avoid using external heat sources such as a warm bath or heating pads. Concentrate on warming the core, rather than the limbs, of the body.
If the person is conscious and can swallow normally, give them something warm to drink and food with sugar, such as chocolate. Do not give them caffeinated beverages or alcohol.
A person with advanced hypothermia may have such a low pulse and respiration that they can appear dead. This is sometimes known as a “metabolic icebox” and requires professional medical care. You should perform CPR on a person in this state only if their pulse has completely stopped.
No matter what degree of hypothermia a person is suffering from, they should receive emergency care as quickly as possible. Prompt medical treatment can prevent hypothermia from becoming fatal.
March 30, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN