Even though the frosty air of January can be invigorating, Old Man Winter has a knack for dictating our behavior. In the past week, the U.S. has experienced some of the coldest air ever, setting new records for plunging temperatures and wind chills. These bone-chilling temperatures will drive most of us indoors quite quickly—and for good reason. Exposure to cold weather or immersion in cold water is what often causes hypothermia. Hypothermia is a dangerous, life-threatening condition in which a person has an abnormally low body temperature which occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it.
Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and hypothermia is characterized by having a core body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. As body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system, and other organs will not be able to work normally. If left untreated, hypothermia can lead to a complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and can eventually result in death.
Symptoms of hypothermia
It’s important to know symptoms associated with this medical emergency to protect yourself and loved ones—including pets—from injury and death from overexposure to low temperatures.
The diagnosis of hypothermia is usually apparent based on a person’s physical signs and the conditions in which a person with hypothermia became ill or was found. Symptoms of hypothermia can include the following:
- Slurred speech or mumbling—these are signs the cold is affecting a person’s body and brain
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Weak pulse
- Clumsiness or lack of coordination
- Drowsiness or very low energy
- Confusion or memory loss
- Loss of consciousness
- Bright, red, cold skin
- Inability to use fingers, hands, and feet normally
What to do if someone is found with hypothermia
Anyone found to be suffering from hypothermia should be taken to an emergency room as soon as possible. Until they can receive medical treatment, here are steps to take to help raise body temperature minimizing injuries:
- While waiting for emergency medical help to arrive, gently move the person inside if possible. Avoid jarring movements as they can trigger dangerous irregular heartbeats. If possible, carefully remove any wet clothing, replacing it with warm, dry coats or blankets.
- Cover them up completely, focusing on warming the center of the body—chest, neck, head, and groin—provide layers of dry blankets, or skin-on-skin contact under dry layers that can contain body heat.
- Avoid using direct heat—do not use hot water, a heating pad, or a heating lamp to warm the person. The extreme heat can damage the skin or worse, causing irregular heartbeats so severe they can cause the heart to stop.
- Offer warm beverages to raise body temperature if they are alert and can swallow.
- Avoid both caffeinated and alcoholic beverages as they can open up blood vessels sending heat away from a person’s core.
How to protect yourself from hypothermia
Whenever the weather turns cold, pay attention to weather forecasts, being aware of what the high temperature for the day is predicted to be along with the temperature of the wind chill can help you to determine how to dress for the outdoor conditions if you need to be outside at all.
Hypothermia can be easily avoided by taking the following commonsense precautionary steps when the outdoor temperature takes a nose dive:
- Limit the amount of time spent outdoors in the cold
- Wear synthetic and wool fabrics, which keep you warmer than cotton
- Dress in layers with a protective wind-breaking shell for the outermost layer
- Wear a warm, lined hat and gloves
- Wear synthetic, moisture-wicking socks
- Wear shoes that are not too tight
- Go inside and warm up completely if you begin having any symptoms of hypothermia
- Remove wet clothing, even undergarments that have become damp from sweating
Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital. He is a medical contributor for the Fox News Channel’s Medical A-Team. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, SamadiMD.com, davidsamadiwiki, davidsamadibio and Facebook.