Winter means colder weather. Make sure you can recognize the signs of hypothermia! Then you can avoid it and help if a cold-weather emergency occurs.
During the winter, the weather outside can be frightful. If it’s cold enough to send shivers up your spine, pay attention to your body. If you find yourself outside for an extended period, and you notice you are getting colder, shivering can be the first symptom of hypothermia.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body is losing heat faster than it can produce it. As your body temperature drops, your nervous system and other organs become unable to function properly. Untreated, hypothermia can lead to death because of heart failure.
Typically, hypothermia is caused by exposure to cold weather or extended immersion in cold water. Before your teeth start chattering and it’s too late, make sure you understand the signs and symptoms of hypothermia, and how to recover properly.
Anyone can develop hypothermia, but there are people who are at greater risk. Infants lose heat faster than adults, and senior citizens cannot regulate their temperature as easily. According to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “even full-term and healthy newborns may not be able to maintain their body temperature if the environment is too cold.”
People with mental illness, including dementia, or other conditions that interfere with judgment are also at greater risk because it is easier for them to get lost or they might not dress appropriately for the weather.
Hypothermia signs and symptoms
If you are in the cold, pay attention to your body. It’s common to shiver when it’s cold, but that’s also the first sign of hypothermia. Additional signs and symptoms include:
- Weak pulse
- Drowsiness or low energy
- Slow, shallow breathing
Many times symptoms appear gradually and people don’t realize they are losing heat, so it is important to stay self-aware.
How to prevent hypothermia
The best way to prevent hypothermia is to stay warm. You can do this a few ways:
- Cover up by wearing a hat and a scarf to prevent body heat from leaving your head, face, and neck. If you can, wear mittens instead of gloves to keep your fingers warm
- Avoid overexertion because, if you become sweaty, the combination of wet clothes and cold weather can cause your body to lose heat more quickly
- Wear layers of loose-fitting, layered, and lightweight clothes. Wearing wool or silk inner layers helps retain body heat. Avoid cotton as an inner layer
- Stay dry and get out of wet clothing as quickly as you can. Be especially careful about changing out of wet mittens and shoes because snow can get inside easily
If you or someone you are with has begun to show hypothermia symptoms, seek immediate medical attention and call 9-1-1 before it’s too late!
When trying to help someone presenting signs of hypothermia, remember these tips:
- Be gentle. Limit movements to those that are necessary, and do not massage or rub the person because this can cause cardiac arrest
- Move the person out of the cold, or remove wet clothing. If you can, find a warm, dry location and remove the wet clothing
- Monitor breathing to ensure the person has a pulse. If his or her breathing is dangerously low, perform CPR, if you are trained
Avoid applying direct heat so you do not damage the skin. Using hot water, a heating pad, or heating lamp to help someone warm up can damage the person’s skin and cause irregular heartbeats, which can stop the heart