Thursday, February 23, 2012

Understanding Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a a real threat that faces everyone who enters the wilderness and it can manifest itself at any time. Hypothermia is underestimated by many hikers and many of those hikers fall for common myths associated with hypothermia. A few myths about hypothermia are as follows:

One myth is that a quick drink of alcohol will quickly warm a hypothermic person. The truth is that alcohol actually dilates the blood vessels causing a "warming" feeling but also causes accelerated heat loss.

Another myth is that you can develop hypothermia in a matter of minutes if the circumstances are right. The truth is that even a victim that falls into an icy lake would have up to 30 minutes before they developed hypothermia.

Myths like these could potentially derail any first aid efforts in the wilderness. It is important that everyone understands the early warning signs of hypothermia to help prevent a life threatening condition miles from help.

Hypothermia is generally described as a state in which the body's mechanism for temperature regulation is overwhelmed in the face of a cold stressor. Hypothermia is broken down into several categories and degrees including, intentional and accidental, primary and secondary, and by the degree of hypothermia.

IntentionalIntentional Hypothermia is used in the medical field to slow down the body during a trauma.

Accidental Accidental Hypothermia is the most common form of hypothermia and is typically caused by an unanticipated exposure by an unprepared person. Examples of accidental hypothermia include being caught in a winter storm, inadequate shelter in the wilderness, or even getting exposed to rain in a mild environment.

SecondarySecondary Hypothermia is generally not experienced by hikers since it is caused by an underlying illness that lowers the bodies core temperature.

PrimaryPrimary Hypothermia is caused by exposure to the environment and not an underlying illness.

It is important to note that even severe hypothermia can be reversed so the early recognition of warning signs will help prevent a medical emergency.

Moderate Hypothermia: Symptoms of mild hypothermia may be vague and can be easily overlooked. The following symptoms may occur:

  • Shivering
  • Rapid Pulse
  • Rapid Breathing (20+ breaths a minute)
  • Mental confusion
  • Cold or pale skin
  • Tiredness

Moderate Hypothermia: In moderate hypothermia symptoms become more pronounced and visible. It is important to get the victim warm immediately if any of the following symptoms occur.

  • Violent, uncontrollable shivering (at lower temperatures shivering may stop since the body can no longer produce heat)
  • Unable to concentrate on normal tasks
  • Loss of judgement (Some people try to push on since they stop shivering)
  • Increased drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Slow, shallow breathing

Severe Hypothermia: Medical attention should be requested immediately if a state of severe hypothermia has been reached. A severe hypothermic person may appear to be dead but may be in a deep state of severe hypothermia.

  • Unconsciousness (Comatose)
  • Shallow or no breathing
  • Weak, irregular or no pulse
  • Dilated pupils

Treatment of Hypothermia: These treatments should never be used over actual medical treatment when available and should only be used in an emergency.
  • Insulate the ground
  • Get into pre-warmed sleeping bags
  • Start a fire to warm up near
  • Drink warm liquids with sugar (sugars help fuel shivering to warm the body)
  • Apply heat to neck, armpits, and groin (Use warm rocks or water bottles, warm but not hot to the touch)
  • Skin to skin contact with a warmer person (Get inside a sleeping bag together)
  • Seek medical treatment

Hypothermia is a life threatening condition that should always be taken seriously. Always seek medical attention no matter how confident you are about your state of hypothermia. Anyone in any weather condition can be sent into a hypothermic state. Always stop and address your situation regardless of your destination or plans. A comprehensive understanding of hypothermia could be the difference between life or death. I hope everyone takes the time to learn about hypothermia before adventuring into the wilderness. Learning the fundamentals of hypothermia can help you explore your surroundings safely, ensuring that survive another day.

Learn. Explore. Survive.

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