Hypothermia is caused by your body losing heat faster than it can produce. A normal resting body temperature is 98.6°F (37°C). If your core body temperature drops below 95°F, it’s declared a medical emergency, and you experience hypothermia. There are several factors that contribute to the onset of hypothermia such as: not wearing warm enough clothes, staying in the cold too long, falling into the water, breaking a sweat in a cold environment, and even being caught in the rain. Body heat can be lost through unprotected surfaces, direct contact with something cold, or wind removing the layer of warmth from your skin. It’s important to understand what steps you can take to minimize your risks of losing body heat.
Often you hear the terms “cold shock” or “cold water shock” used alongside hypothermia. When your body experiences a sudden drop in core temperature, an immediate change in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure can occur. This “shock” causes your nervous system and organs to not function properly. Cold shock can create a sense of fear and stress to the body from the abrupt change in temperature, which can lead to an increased drowning risk. Again, the importance of life jackets comes into play here. You should always wear a life jacket when recreating on the water, especially in the cold, because should you enter cold water, a life jacket will keep you afloat as you lose voluntary movement. If you find yourself in the water, do not remove any clothing. Hold your knees to your chest to minimize heat loss.
The onset of hypothermia often begins gradually, often while you’re also losing your ability to think clearly. This makes it extremely hard to self- diagnose and be aware of your own condition. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of hypothermia so you know when to take immediate action:
• Slurred speech
• Slow breathing
• Weak pulse
• Loss of consciousness
• Slow reactions
• Stiffness in arms and legs
If you or someone you’re in contact with is experiencing any of these symptoms, or expected to have hypothermia, call 911 immediately. As you’re waiting for emergency personnel to arrive there are precautions to take in an effort not to worsen the situations. Use these dos and don’ts when providing care before medical help arrives.
- Warm the center of the body (head, neck, and chest)
- Remove any wet or sweaty clothing
- Cover the person with a blanket
- Monitor their breathing
- Provide a warm beverage
- Do not apply direct heat
- Do not apply heat to the arms or legs (this pushes cold blood back to the heart which can be fatal)
- Do not leave the person in a cold environment
Before planning your next outdoor activity, consider the severity of hypothermia and cold shock. Follow these tips to help you better prepare and recreate safer.
Monitor the weather
Be aware of the air temperature, wind chill, potential water temperature (if you’re going to be around the water) and any additional weather alerts. Use this information to make sound decisions as you prepare to be outdoors or guide you to reschedule your plans for a safer option.
After analyzing the weather, dress in layers to minimize heat loss and stay dry. Make sure you cover your head, face, and neck. Be mindful of the layers you choose if you’re going to be exerting a lot of energy as sweating can cause you to get cold.
Wear a life jacket
As hypothermia sets in, you’ll lose muscle movement, and your risk of drowning greatly increases. You have 10 minutes of meaningful movement once your body receives the shock from the cold water, so wearing a life jacket is critical to your safety.
Bring dry clothes, towels and blankets
Carry extra dry towels and warm blankets to aid during any potential emergency. If your clothing gets wet for any reason, change it immediately. If anyone you encounter shows signs of hypothermia you can immediately provide care without any hesitation as you wait on medical personnel.
Carry a first aid kit with a thermometer
Keep a first aid kit readily accessible. Make sure to keep a thermometer in this kit to help gauge body temperature and exposure to the cold. This will help you detect the potential onset of hypothermia symptoms before they arise.
File a float plan
It’s always best to recreate with another person. However, at a minimum, you should file a float plan with a friend or family member. This plan lets them know where you’re recreating, when you expect to return and how to provide help should a situation arise. For more information on filing a float plan, please refer to the following video.
Hypothermia and cold shock are serious conditions anyone recreating on cold weather can experience. Whether you’re hunting ducks in flooded timber, hiking through a national park, or catching walleye through the ice – everyone has an equal chance of feeling the effects of hypothermia if you’re not prepared. Remember, you don’t need to be in the water or experience very cold temperatures to feel the onset of symptoms from hypothermia. Please stay safe by using these key tips to properly prepare for any cold weather you’ll encounter.