Dr Zuze Health Matters
Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing a dangerously low body temperature. When your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs can’t work correctly. Left untreated, hypothermia can eventually lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and to death. Hypothermia is most often caused by exposure to cold weather like we are having now, or immersion in a cold body of water. Shivering is your body’s automatic defence against cold temperature — an attempt to warm itself. Constant shivering is a key sign of hypothermia. Signs and symptoms of moderate to severe hypothermia include:
Shivering, clumsiness or lack of coordination, slurred speech or mumbling, Stumbling, confusion or difficulty thinking, poor decision making- such as trying to remove warm clothes, drowsiness or very low energy, apathy or lack of concern about one’s condition, progressive loss of consciousness, weak pulse and slow shallow breathing. In infants the only symptoms might be cold skin and very low energy levels.
Hypothermia isn’t always the result of exposure to extremely cold outdoor temperatures. An older person may develop mild hypothermia after prolonged exposure to indoor temperatures that would be tolerable to a younger or healthier adult. Prolonged exposure to any environment colder than your body can lead to hypothermia if you aren’t dressed appropriately or can’t control the conditions.
A number of factors can increase the risk of developing hypothermia:
Older age. People age 65 and older are more vulnerable to hypothermia for a number of reasons. The body’s ability to regulate temperature and to sense cold may lessen with age. Some older adults may not be able to communicate when they are cold or may not be mobile enough to get to a warm location.
Very young age. Children lose heat faster than adults do. Children have a larger head-to-body ratio than adults do, making them more prone to heat loss through the head. Children may also ignore the cold because they’re having too much fun to think about it.
Mental problems. People with a mental illness, dementia or another condition that interferes with judgment may not dress appropriately for the weather or understand the risk of cold weather.
Alcohol and drug use. Alcohol may make your body feel warm inside, but it causes your blood vessels to dilate, resulting in more rapid heat loss from the surface of your skin.
Certain medical conditions. Some health disorders affect your body’s ability to regulate body temperature.
Medications. A number of drugs, including certain antidepressants, antipsychotics and sedatives, can change the body’s ability to regulate its temperature.
Should you ever come across anyone who you think might be hypothermic here is what you need to do:
Be gentle. When you’re helping a person with hypothermia, handle them gently. Limit movements to only those that are necessary. Don’t massage or rub the person. Excessive, vigorous or jarring movements may trigger cardiac arrest.
Move the person out of the cold. Move the person to a warm, dry location if possible. If you’re unable to move the person out of the cold, shield him or her from the cold and wind as much as possible.
Remove wet clothing. If the person is wearing wet clothing, remove it. Cut away clothing if necessary to avoid excessive movement.
Cover the person with blankets. Use layers of dry blankets or coats to warm the person. Cover the person’s head, leaving only the face exposed.
Insulate the person’s body from the cold ground. If you’re outside, lay the person on his or her back on a blanket or other warm surface.
Monitor breathing. A person with severe hypothermia may appear unconscious, with no apparent signs of a pulse or breathing. If the person’s breathing has stopped or appears dangerously low or shallow, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately if you’re trained.