Can you recognize the signs of hypothermia and provide treatment?
After being exposed to frigid temperatures for an extended period of time, the body loses its ability to replenish the heat that is being drawn away from its core. Hypothermia results when the core body temperature drops below 95.0 °F. At this core temperature, the body can no longer maintain normal metabolism or body functions.
This winter, whether you are out sled riding with your kids or working on a project, please be aware of the symptoms that accompany mild, moderate and severe cases of hypothermia.
As the core body temperature drops below 98°F, the characteristic symptoms of minor hypothermia appear, including shivering and reddening of exposed skin.
As the body temperature lowers and moderate hypothermia sets in, the body restricts blood flow to the extremities (fingers, toes, hands and feet) to boost blood flow, and therefore heat, to the body’s core organs. The individual’s complexion pales and fingers, toes, ears and lips may begin to turn blue. The individual will have labored movements and may show signs of slight confusion.
A significant drop in body core temperature to 82–85 °F is considered severe hypothermia and major body systems and organs will show distress. The individual’s heart rate and blood pressure drops and breathing becomes labored. Major confusion, disorientation and combative nature (altered mental status), along with difficulty with speech and common communication, also becomes evident.
Based on these symptoms, you can employ different levels of treatment:
- Mild hypothermia can be treated with passive warming techniques and common sense. Remove the individual from the cold environment. Use blankets and dry clothing to help the body to recover to its normal internal temperature.
- Moderate hypothermia must be treated with active warming techniques. In addition to the treatments above, use a hot water bottle or chemical hand warmers (both wrapped in cloth) to apply heat to the individual’s core (not the extremities). Provide the individual with a warm non-alcoholic drink to help warm their core. Active warming should be slow and steady. DO NOT immerse the individual in warm water. Rapid warming could affect the heart causing it to beat irregularly.
- Severe hypothermia requires you to CALL 911, then implement the interventions listed above and wait for the ambulance. Severe cases of hypothermia are treated with active core warming techniques including warm intravenous fluids or warm humidified air inhaled via a heart lung machine. All of these techniques are applied in an EMS/pre-hospital or hospital environment.
Be safe. Stay warm.
Article by Dan Kiefer, Director of Preconstruction
Dan is a PA Certified EMT volunteering with Murrysville Medic One.