How to Recognise and Treat Hypothermia
SAS survival expert, John 'Lofty' Wiseman
Hypothermia happens when a person's body temperature drops below 35°C (95°F). Normal body temperature is around 37°C (98.6°F). Everyone reacts differently to the cold, even under the same conditions. Generally, children lose body heat more quickly than adults and thin people lose body heat faster than overweight people.
However, hypothermia can quickly become life threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency. The symptoms of hypothermia vary depending on how low your body temperature has become. Mild hypothermia isn't always obvious, symptoms can include: constant shivering, tiredness, low energy levels, cold or pale skin, fast breathing (hyperventilation).
In more severe cases the person can become confused or drowsy, have slurred speech and a loss of co-ordination. You should always seek immediate medical attention if you suspect someone has hypothermia but until help arrives, you can prevent further heat being lost by gently warming the patient.
- If possible, move the person indoors or somewhere warm as soon as possible.
- Once in a warm environment, carefully remove any wet clothing from the person that may be contributing to their condition and dry them thoroughly.
- Wrap the person in blankets, towels, coats (whatever you have available), concentrating on their head and torso (core) first.
- Gently hug them to help warm them.
- Encourage the person to shiver if they're capable of doing so.
- If possible, give the person warm drinks (not alcohol) or high-energy foods, such as chocolate. However, it's important to only do this if they can swallow normally - ask them to cough to see if they can swallow. If the patient is confused or has been unconscious, don't give them anything to eat or drink.
- Once the person's body temperature has increased, keep them warm and dry until medical assistance arrives.
- You can use heating pads to increase core temperature but DON'T place on hands or feet. The aim is to increase core temperature so place under the arms, across the neck and in the groin area.
There are certain things you should not do when helping someone with hypothermia because it may make their condition worse:
- Put a cold person into a hot bath.
- Massage their limbs.
- Give them alcohol to drink (the old advert with the St Bernard dog coming to the rescue with a drink of brandy is the worst thing you can do if someone is hypothermic). Trying to warm someone up with hot water, massages or giving them alcohol can cause the blood vessels in the arms and legs to open up (dilate) too quickly. If this happens, it can lead to a fall in blood pressure to the vital organs such as the brain, heart, lungs and kidneys, potentially resulting in cardiac arrest and death.
If you/the victim are shivering, feel tired/have low energy levels, are cold or have pale skin and fast breathing (hyperventilation) you/they may have mild hypothermia. (Lofty)
Winter Survival Guide
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Amid falling temperatures and rising levels of concern among drivers, Halfords Autocentres has worked with renowned survival expert, former SAS Sergeant Major and author of the best-selling SAS Survival Handbook John 'Lofty' Wiseman to create the ultimate Motoring Survival Guide.
Download the complete guide or read on for more winter survival advice.