First aid for hypothermia


Good to know:

  • Hypothermia is when the body's core temperature drops below 37°C.
  • This typically results from prolonged exposure to cold conditions, especially damp, wet or snowy weather.
  • Early signs include shivering, listlessness, cold, pale skin, slurred speech, and impaired judgment.
  • Later signs include drowsiness, weakness, slow pulse, shallow breathing, and confusion. 
  • Move the person to a warmer area, shield him from cold, rewarm him with a space blanket, and give warm fluids and high energy foods if possible.

What is hypothermia?
Hypothermia is when the body's core temperature drops below 37°C. This happens when more heat is lost than the body can produce through shivering and muscle contractions.

What causes it?
Hypothermia is the result of prolonged exposure to cold conditions, especially damp, wet or snowy weather. Common situations that cause hypothermia are wearing inadequate clothing during winter or at night in the wilderness, or falling into cold water. 

Symptoms of hypothermia
Hypothermia has a gradual onset. The affected person may lose heat to a critical level before becoming aware of the problem. 

Shivering (shivering stops once body temperature falls to below 32°C).Early signs include:

  • Listlessness.
  • Cold, pale skin.
  • Slurred or incoherent speech. 
  • Impaired judgment. 

Later signs include:

  • Drowsiness.
  • Weakness.
  • Slow pulse.
  • Shallow breathing.
  • Confusion.
  • Altered behaviour like aggressiveness.
  • Stumbling when walking.
  • Unsteadiness when standing. 

Infants, the very lean, and the elderly are at particular risk. Elderly people may become hypothermic at temperatures as mild as 10 to 15°C, particularly if they’re malnourished, have heart disease or an underactive thyroid, or if they take certain medications or abuse alcohol.

Hypothermia can be fatal and needs prompt treatment. Severe hypothermia may be difficult to distinguish from death. Pulses become very difficult or impossible to feel, and breathing may be too shallow to notice.

First aid for hypothermia 

  • Call for an ambulance if the person's level of consciousness is dropping or if you have doubts about the severity of the condition.
  • If possible, move him to a warmer area, shielded from the cold and wind. Remove wet clothing.
  • Keep him warm in a blanket, clothing or newspaper. Don’t apply direct heat, e.g. a heat pad or electric blanket. This can lead to burns. If outdoors, insulate him from the ground and lie next to him.
  • If he's conscious, give him warm fluids and high-energy foods, unless he's vomitting. Don't give him any alcohol or caffeinated drinks.
  • Keep him still as movement draws blood away from vital organs. Don't massage or rub him if he has severe hypothermia. 

Prevent hypothermia

  • If you're going to be doing outdoor sports like hiking, research the conditions first and speak to people who know the area. Ask them what they would recommend for gear and available shelter. Take along several layers of warm clothing to trap warm air. Always keep your head, hands and feet covered.
  • Change out of wet clothes as soon as you can. Being wet and in the wind rapidly speeds up heat loss from the body.
  • Take enough food, especially carbohydrates, and snack regularly. It's also important to stay hydrated, even in cold weather.
  • Carry a space blanket. These are available at outdoor and camping shops.

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