The technical definition of hypothermia is when the body loses heat to the environment faster than it can produce heat resulting in a drop in core body temperature.
General hypothermia which was referred to as “exposure” in the old texts. This occurs in degrees.
The beginning stage of hypothermia is often overlooked as it occurs before noticeable shivering occurs. This is unfortunate because hypothermia is most easily treated in the early stages. A person suffering from mild hypothermia is likely to first notice a decline in gross motor skills and may stumble or become less agile. Fine motor may begin to decline next and you might notice a person dropping items or that their reflexes may slow. Brain function may begin to decline and you might notice that a person’s speech may begin to slur or they might stutter. You might also begin to notice a person exhibiting less social behavior such as irritability or combativeness. A person’s heart rate or respiration rate may rise and the skin will pale slightly.
When uncontrollable shivering begins it signifies that you are experiencing moderate hypothermia. Shivering expends a great deal of energy so you will lose heat more quickly. The symptoms listed above may increase to the point that one is unable to walk or talk. They may become delirious or begin to hallucinate. The skin becomes even more pale and cooler to the touch.
When shivering ceases, the musculature may become rigid. The sufferer progresses from a mental stupor to unconsciousness. It is also at this point that the heart rate and respiration begin to slow and possibly arrest. Seizures are possible and if not treated quickly the exposed person might slip into a coma. Skin will be cold to the touch and most likely cyanotic.
Obviously, exposure to the cold is the primary cause of hypothermia. Certain factors, however, may increase your susceptibility to hypothermia. I prefer to focus on prevention, so I will present the various measures one can take to avoid hypothermia when exposure to the cold is inevitable.
1. Dress appropriately. Layers and a head covering are essential. Make sure your ears are covered.
2. Maintain constant hydration – dehydration can sneak up on you in cooler weather as the dryer air and cold tend to rob your body of fluids in an entirely different manner than the summer heat.
3. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and tobacco. They cause vasoconstriction which restricts blood flow to the periphery.
4. Avoid alcohol and other drugs which impair circulation.
5. Stay dry; remove clothing if you begin to sweat. Keep a spare pair of dry socks in your pack.
6. Keep active; move around frequently.
Diet can contribute to prevention measures as well. When spending time outdoors in cold weather follow the following dietary advice:
1. High calorie diet with adequate amounts of protein and saturated fats.
2. Increase intake of Omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats. Include fish oils, nuts, olive oils and coconut oil.
3. Increase intake of anti-oxidant rich vegetables.
4. Drink 6-8 glasses of water or herbal infusions daily.
Sample Menu Items
1. Hot soups made with fresh vegetables and warming herbs such as ginger, pepper, turmeric, garlic and cayenne.
2. Kitchari, dhal, congee or other traditional recipes for preparing legumes or grains.
3. Ginger tea with honey.
4. Dried fruits including cherries and blueberries mixed with nuts and seeds that have been lightly roasted in oil. In Food as Medicine, Todd Caldecott recommends roasting seeds and nuts at 300 degrees for 10-15 minutes in order to reduce antinutrient factors. You can toss some seeds and nuts of your choice in olive oil and then sprinkle warming herbs of your choice over the oil coated nuts before baking.
Do not attempt to treat severe hypothermia on your own. Supplemental oxygen so as to avoid hypoxia is a key treatment component at this degree of exposure. Follow the following procedure for treating mild-moderate hypothermia but immediately seek medical assistance.
Mild – Moderate Hypothermia
1. Ensure that the person is dry. If necessary change out wet clothing for drying clothing.
2. Shelter the person from wind and water either by placing them in a shelter or covering them with a windproof layer.
3. Insulate person from the ground with a tarp under extra sleeping bag or thermorest.
4. Place person in another sleeping bag on top of insulation or conversely sandwich them between two more bags. If you have them you can tuck heat packs or hot water bottles inside bags.
5. Wrap the tarp around person “like a burrito”.
6. Give warm liquids and simple foods to people suffering mild-moderate hypothermia.
Center, University of Maryland Medical. Medical Reference – Complementary Medicine. 16 11 2011 .
Tilton, Buck. Wilderness First Responder: Second Edition. Connecticut: FalconGuide, 2004.