First-Aid for Hypothermia

Jake Buckland Dangers & Hazards

First-Aid for Hypothermia

The worst killer in the wild isn’t some exotic predator. It’s not careless hunters with their guns. It’s not even the roughest country you can find. No, the worst killer in the wild is nothing more than cold. Yes, more people die in the wild of hypothermia, than any other reason.

People confuse hypothermia and hyperthermia all the time. One is too much core body heat and the other is too little body heat. But which is which? It’s actually much easier to remember than you realize. A hyperactive child is one that is too active. We don’t talk about a hypoactive child, which would be one that is no active enough. So the prefix “hyper” means “too much” and the prefix “hypo” means “not enough.” Hence, “hypothermia” is “not enough core body heat.”

Ok, so that doesn’t seem like anything all that serious, right? Wrong. Our bodies can actually only function within a very narrow range of body heat. If our core body temperature raises or lowers by just a couple of degrees, we stop functioning correctly. Allow it to change by as little as five degrees, and it will kill us.

How Hypothermia Happens

So, how can this happen? The obvious answer, being out in the cold, isn’t the most common reason why people suffer from hypothermia. If you’re properly dressed, in reasonably good health and your body has plenty of energy (calories) to burn, you’ll be fine, even if it is below zero degrees outside. Your body can produce enough heat, that with proper clothing to provide insulation, you can survive without any problem.

But, if you take that insulation away, your body may not be able to produce enough heat. In such a case, it will radiate heat into the atmosphere faster than it can produce it, causing the body’s core temperature to drop. That can happen either by removing too much clothing or by getting that clothing wet.

Almost all clothing loses its insulating value when it is wet. That’s because what makes it work as insulation is the many tiny air pockets between the fibers. When water fills those pockets, there is no insulation. In such a case, the body loses heat faster than if it was totally naked; in some cases, as much as 300 times faster!

The only clothing that retains any insulation value when wet is wool. The hollow fibers of wool allow it to retain roughly 50% of its insulating value, soaking wet. In addition, the natural oils from the sheep provide waterproofing for those fibers, allowing wool to shed water quickly, so that it can regain the rest of its insulating value.

Please note that it is possible to suffer from hypothermia in the summertime, especially if one were to fall in the water close to sundown, when the temperature drops significantly. As long as the ambient air temperature is less than 98.6°F we radiate heat. If we are wet, we radiate it rapidly.

Treating Hypothermia

The signs of hypothermia are varied but the most obvious are an inability to think clearly, a loss of fine motor skills and as it advances, the inability to articulate clearly. The more body heat that is lost, the more obvious these symptoms become, quickly brining the person to the point where they can’t take proper care of themselves. At that point, they will die without outside help.

If hypothermia is the loss of core body heat, then the obvious solution to it is to raise the body’s core temperature. There are a number of ways of doing this:

  • Get the person into a warm building
  • Build a fire and put them close to it
  • Put them in a sleeping bag, stripped of their outer clothing, along with someone else who is stripped of their outer clothing, so that they can absorb body heat from the other person
  • Give them hot liquids to drink
  • Feed them hot food
  • Use hot packs, heating pads or heated blankets if available

Please note that if a person has hypothermia, especially severe hypothermia, just putting them in bed and piling on the blankets won’t be enough. Some additional source of heat, like the ones mentioned above, needs to be provided, as their body won’t be producing heat fast enough to recover on its own.


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