In April of 1912, the RMS Titanic claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people after the ship collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank within a few short hours. As one of the deadliest maritime disasters in history, many of the ship’s passengers perished as a direct result of the freezing waters.
The sinking of the Titanic demonstrates a classic case of hypothermia from cold water immersion, and it’s a threat that still holds true today. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, more than 700 people die in the US each year from hypothermia and other cold-related illnesses.
If you spend a lot of time in the cold, it’s important to understand how these conditions affect your body. To keep you safe, here are some things you need to know about hypothermia.
Overview of Hypothermia
Hypothermia is a serious medical emergency that results from prolonged exposure to a cold environment, causing very low body temperature—that is, a temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). Common causes include:
- Falling into a cold body of water
- Wearing wet or scant clothing in windy or rainy weather
- Exerting intense physical activity in freezing conditions
Having low temperatures inside your home from poor heating or excessive air conditioning is also dangerous, as it can lead to hypothermia. While infants and seniors (ages 65+) are most vulnerable, your risk of developing hypothermia increases if you are:
- Malnourished or dehydrated
- Ill or in poor health (i.e. have heart or blood flow problems)
- Sleep deprived
- Under the influence of drugs or some prescription medicines
How does hypothermia affect the body?
When hypothermia occurs, your body loses heat faster than it can be produced, causing you to feel chilly. Ever wonder why you shiver in cold-weather? Once your temperature drops below normal (about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), your body’s natural defense is to create movement in an effort to produce body heat.
If untreated, an abnormally low body temperature causes your vital organs to shut down, which impairs rational thinking and results in confusion, clumsiness, and fatigue. Severe cases of hypothermia can result in irregular heartbeat and even death.
Hypothermia happens slowly so most people don’t know they have it. There are, however, some warning signs to watch out for.
Mild signs of hypothermia include:
- Trembling or shivering
- Difficulty speaking
- Poor coordination
- Rapid heart rate
- Heavy or fast breathing
In more severe cases, a person suffering from hypothermia may exude the following symptoms:
- Shaking (although this can subside if the condition worsens)
- Poor coordination
- Mumbling or difficulty speaking
- Confusion and poor decision-making
- Reduced energy
- Faint pulse
- Shallow breathing
If you suspect someone has hypothermia, it’s especially important to contact a medical professional immediately as this condition can be fatal. Before help arrives, here are a few things you can do to help a person with extremely low body temperature:
- Be very careful when helping a person with hypothermia as unnecessary movements may induce cardiac arrest.
- Escort the person out of the cold and into a warm place that protects against the elements. If this isn’t possible, shield the person from the cold.
- Remove or cut away wet clothes.
- Use blankets or coats to bring the person’s body temperature back to normal. Wrap the person’s head and neck. Don’t try to warm the extremities (i.e. arms, hands, legs and feet) first as this can cause shock.
- Perform CPR immediately if the person has shallow breathing or losses consciousness.
- Direct skin-to-skin contact will transfer your body heat to the affected person. If possible, share body heat by holding the person close to your body under a blanket.
- If s/he is conscious and able to swallow, give the person a warm, sweet beverage. Make sure the drink is non-caffeinated and non-alcoholic.
- Don’t expose the person to extreme heat such as hot water, heat pads, or heat lamps. This is extremely dangerous and may not only cause burns to the skin, but it can also cause the heart to stop beating.