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February 09, 2021

Winter safety: Be aware of these signs of hypothermia

Prevention Hypothermia

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Blue lips and skin. Chattering teeth. Icicles dripping off the nose. When cartoon characters get caught out in the snow—or maybe emerge from a winter lake encased in a block of ice—the signs of hypothermia are crystal clear. And, the recovery is comically quick.

In reality, the signs of hypothermia aren’t always so obvious. But for anyone who plans to spend time outdoors this winter, it’s important to know what the signs of hypothermia are, and how to address them quickly.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops to an abnormally low level because the body is losing heat faster than it can make it. Any time your body temperature drops below 95 degrees is very dangerous, and medical treatment must be sought immediately.

It’s important to note that hypothermia is distinct from frostbite, which is an injury involving the freezing of specific parts of the body. Both, however, can occur in any cold environment, particularly outdoors during winter activities.

What signs should I watch for?

Of course, without a thermometer, you probably don’t know your body temperature. And because hypothermia comes on slowly, you may not even notice the symptoms — so make sure you have a buddy when you’re outdoors in the cold!

If someone is in a cold environment and exhibiting these symptoms, it may be a sign of hypothermia:

  1. Cold feet or hands
  2. Shivering
  3. Slow or slurred speech
  4. Acting sleepy or confused
  5. Difficulty moving or lethargy
  6. Slow heartbeat and breathing
  7. Losing consciousness

While these symptoms can also suggest other health issues besides hypothermia, you should make sure to warm up if you experience them when you are wet and cold, in freezing weather for too long, or underdressed for the elements to which you’re exposed.

How do I help someone with hypothermia?

If you or someone you’re with is suffering from hypothermia, avoid the temptation to warm them up too quickly. A hot-water bath, heating pad, or other external sources of heat can hurt someone with hypothermia, either from shock or because they can’t feel the extreme heat and therefore burn themselves. Avoid the temptation to warm up by snuggling up to someone else; it may just lower both of your body temperatures.

The best bet is the simplest: get them out of the cold, get them into dry clothes, cover them up with blankets, and give them a warm beverage such as tea. If their temperature seems extremely low or they don’t quickly improve, seek medical attention immediately.

Whether you’re skating, skiing, or just out for a winter walk, the risk of hypothermia in cold temperatures is ever-present. Being alert to these symptoms, and quickly intervening if they arise, is key to having a safe, happy winter season.

Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.

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