Intuitively, we expect hypothermia to strike in the depths of winter. While being prepared for winter cold is vital for survival, people are often caught off-guard by the warm days of fall that turn to deadly nights.
Hypothermia occurs when the body cannot replace the internal temperature being lost to the environment and body temperature drops to a dangerous level (below about 35C).
No one is exempt from mother nature’s cruel wrath, no matter how hard the people. The Victorians and tough immigrant classes alike all succumbed quickly to the chilly North Atlantic when the Titanic sank (although most would have died of other cold-related causes e.g. shock, frozen limbs, confusion). The Russian winter brutalized the seemingly invincible Napoleonic and Nazi armies. Many a Canadian explorer and settler lost their lives to the cold. Don’t take a cavalier attitude to the power of cold. It can take anyone’s life in a short period of time.
Symptoms of Mild Hypothermia
What you may be able to notice by yourself:
- Inability to stop shivering
- Inability to manipulate your fingers
- Quickly becoming tired and sleepy
- Increased respiration and heart rate
- Mild impaired brain function
As the body transitions from minor to moderate hypothermia, the body will stop shivering and brain function will continue to fail towards lack of awareness towards unconsciousness.
Symptoms of Moderate and Extreme Hypothermia
What you may notice in others but not yourself:
- Impaired brain function affecting muscle coordination and rational thinking
- Slurring speech
- Poor memory towards complete amnesia
- Ghostly pale skin and blue extremities
Once your brain function is impaired, if you are on your own, you will have little chance of stemming the hypothermia because you won’t have your faculties to act rationally.
Often what happens in this instance is paradoxical undressing, where the body’s temperature control fails and releases all the blood protecting the vital organs towards the skin. The victim feels hot, undresses and quickly dies of heart failure. If paradoxical undressing doesn’t occur to speed up the process, the victim will still die of organ failure.
Apart from finding victims without clothing, victims may also be found in a state of terminal burrowing if the hypothermia occurred more slowly. A terminally sick house pet may hide in a closet and a wounded animal may tuck itself under a thick evergreen in a last ditch attempt at survival. Likewise, humans, operating without higher brain function, will seek an enclosed space to hide. Primitive instincts from the lower brain function decide where you go to die. Avoid such a grim fate.
Avoiding and Reversing Hypothermia
The key to avoiding hypothermia is preparation. Without a quick response to the symptoms, hypothermia-induced delusions will prevent any hope of reversing the path towards death.
Basic Tools of Hypothermia Survival
Always prepare your clothing ahead of time. Fall days can turn from blistering to freezing. Pack extra clothes in a backpack just in case.
Make sure the clothes are the right material. The old adage is that “Cotton kills” because it retains moisture near the body. Wool is better because it keeps you relatively warm even when it’s wet due to its property that maintains air pockets (though it needs to be dried ASAP all the same). Certain synthetic products will actively wick water away from your body.
Keep clothing loose to ensure blood circulation.
If your clothes get wet, you will need…
Keep yourself warm and dry your clothes. Pack firestarter like little briquettes and several lighters to get a fire going ASAP. Because if the fire isn’t started quickly, your fingers will be too cold to operate the lighters.
Your backpack should also contain a thermos with hot liquid to warm yourself from the inside while the fire warms you from the outside.
A lean-to shelter can offer good air circulation. At a minimum, you can use large pine branches and built up snow walls as a windbreaker. Ensure the fire is away from the wind so it doesn’t blow into your shelter.
- If you’re with someone, use their body heat, but never rub the skin of someone suffering from hypothermia since this increases circulation to the outer part of the body when the core needs to retain heat. Rubbing is also bad in cases of frostbite as it can damage the weakened tissue. Frostbite should be dealt with through warm (not hot) water or other sources (i.e. using someone’s warm body).
- Also, never panic and run around when you think you’re entering hypothermia. When you do stop, you will be sweaty, and the sweat will cool your body further.
- Never drink alcohol just because it feels warming. Alcohol vasodiolates the outer body (skin, extremities). As the blood flows closer to the cold, your body loses that temperature to the outside world.
- In rare cases where someone has entered into a low-metabolism, unconscious state and requires resuscitation, perform CPR until help can arrive.