Brr-r-r-r! Frigid temperatures. Scary wind chills. It’s a serious challenge to outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you are cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling or just out shoveling or sledding with your kids, it is important that you know the ins and outs of hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when a person’s core body temperature drops from its normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit to below 95 degrees. (In some cases the core temperature can actually get as low as 86 degrees, but only special medical thermometers typically can register temperatures this low.)
You may think that this situation only happens in extreme temperatures, but according to William Forgey, MD, a former president of the Wilderness Medical Society, “Most deaths from hypothermia occur (when outside temperatures are) between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit.” Dr. Forgey points out that wet cotton in particular significantly increases the body’s heat loss.
Signs of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, mental confusion, slowed breathing and heartbeat, loss of coordination and cold pale or blue-gray skin.
You can take many steps to prevent this serious, even life-threatening, condition. For example, since 50%-66% of your body heat is lost through your head, wearing a hat is a simple way to prevent much heat loss.
Layering clothing is also an excellent way to stay warm. Start with the thinnest layer closest to the skin. Instead of wearing materials that hold moisture, such as cotton (jeans), silk or acrylic, choose wool, fleece or polyester materials. The outer layer of clothing should be water-resistant.
Body parts farthest from the trunk tend to get cold fastest. Wear good-quality ski mittens or gloves and thick wool socks. Avoid getting snow in the top of your boots. Pay attention to exposed areas such as your ears and nose for signs of exposure.
If you plan to spend a lot of uninterrupted time outside, eat high-energy foods and drink plenty of water before and during your time out of doors. Keep yourself hydrated, even when you’re not thirsty. Stay away from alcoholic beverages. Although alcohol can give the illusion of warming the body, it does, in fact speed up the rate of heat loss by dilating blood vessels close to the skin. In turn, more heat escapes. Alcohol also increases dehydration and may cloud your judgment and awareness of how cold you really are.
Fatigue also contributes to hypothermia. This condition occurs when your body loses more heat than it is able to produce through your activity or by shivering (nature’s way of generating heat), so being very tired or stressed increases the chance of hypothermia. Smoking cigarettes and drinking caffeine are other factors to consider because these substances cause blood vessels to constrict. Lastly, thin individuals with a low body fat ratio tend to loose heat more quickly; they should layer their clothing.
The wind chill factor significantly increases the rate of your body’s heat loss. On a wet, windy day, take precautions because skiing downhill and snowmobiling create an innate wind chill problem.
To treat hypothermia, seek emergency services first. If none is available, wrap your trunk in blankets so you can warm gradually and avoid breathing and heart problems. When your trunk core temperature reaches 95 degrees, then warm your arms and legs.
Winter outdoor activities can be fun and exhilarating. Enjoying the inevitability of winter by getting outside on a crisp blue-sky day cuts down on cabin fever.
But be smart, keep warm and stay safe.