Hypothermia: A Real Danger

Hypothermia is a medical term for below-normal body temperature. Normal is about 98.6 Fahrenheit (37C). A person whose body temperature drops to between 90F and 95~F (32.2C to 35C) is suffering from mild hypothermia, while temperatures below 90F (32.2C) constitute severe, lifethreatening hypothermia.

In mild hypothermia the person will be conscious but shivering violently. Shivering is the body's attempt to generate heat, but some people may not shiver at all, depending on their body type or if they've been taking alcohol or certain medications. In addition, age, allergies, heart disease, diabetes, excessive smoking, drinking and certain medications can worsen the effects of cold temperatures.

In severe hypothermia the person can become drowsy or even unconscious. If the condition persists, hypothermia can cause weakness, slurred speech, shallow or slow breathing, trembling, stiffness, pale or unusually pink skin, a bloated face, confusion, erratic heartbeats, shock and even death from cardiac arrest or respiratory failure.

Silent Victims

baby cannot complain of the cold. The most common cause of hypothermia in infants or children up to five years old is a cold bedroom at night, especially if an infant is premature or sick. The signs of hypothermia in an infant or young child include red skin, sluggishness and a refusal to eat. The red skin may actually make the baby or child look ' healthy," but the skin will be cold to the touch.

Older people sometimes develop hypothermia after exposure to even mild cold and, occasionally, an older person becomes hypothermic without even noticing the cold. Those who are chronically ill, too poor to afford adequate heating or who are taking alcohol or certain drugs are especially at risk for hypothermia. In some cases their heating system may have broken down or may have been shut off during winter.

If you or your elderly relative take prescription medicine, ask your doctor about the possibility of hypothermia. Also dress (or have your relative dress) warmly, even when indoors; wear a hat; keep the heat set at 65F (18.3 C) or above; use extra blankets in bed if necessary; get enough to eat; and ask friends to check in on you or your relative when the weather is cold.

Joggers, Runners and Hypothermia

Joggers and runners are at risk for hypothermia because their movement can increase the force of cold winds against their bodies, especially when there's a lot of moisture on their skin and in the air. Runners may not be dressed warmly enough, or they may become exhausted during their run. A cold, wet, dehydrated, tired, lightly clothed person is a prime candidate for hypothermia.

Joggers and runners should wear several layers of clothing in cold weather, especially modern synthetic long johns that keep moisture away from the body. It's even more important that they keep their extremities warm. In addition, they should drink enough fluids, know the route they're planning to run, get back before extreme fatigue sets in, carry concentrated snack foods, such as raisins, to ward off possible energy dives and, if possible, run with a partner.

First Aid for Hypothermia Victims

Hypothermia can be fatal if not treated promptly by a medical professional. So when you suspect someone is suffering from hypothermia, dial 9-1-1 or your local emergency medical service. Do so even if the person says he or she is okay. Many victims are not aware that they are cold.

While waiting for an ambulance, wrap the victim in a blanket, covering the entire body except for the face. Lay the person down and give him or her hot, sweet drinks, but no alcohol or coffee. Avoid rubbing or massaging the victim's limbs and keep the person still. Exercise and increased blood circulation will rob the body's intemal organs of warm blood where it's most needed. If you have time, wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and lay it on the victim's stomach. Make sure it's not too hot and don't lay it on the victim's limbs.

If a victim of hypothermia is unconscious, take him or her to the hospital immediately, preferably in a warm car.

Lowell General Hospital, 295 Varnum Avenue, Lowell, Massachusetts 01854, Main Telephone: (978) 937-6000
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