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Handling Hypothermia


Even on warm days, midwinter waters can be cold enough to kill. Hypothermia, the lowering of body temperature, isn’t something that happens only to people who fall overboard; in fact, you don’t even have to get wet. But a good soaking greatly enhances the process by which the victim loses heat, and that process has to be interrupted and then reversed in order for the internal temperature to return to normal operating levels.

In attempting to aid a victim, keep in mind that heat loss is accompanied by loss of muscle strength, including the heart, and strain, rough handling or sudden movements can result in cardiac arrest.

Follow these three steps;

  1. Provide shelter and warmth as soon as possible;
  2. Remove all wet clothing;
  3. Apply heat to the head, neck, chest, shoulders, sides and groin; it’s more important to restore warmth to the core of the body than to the extremities.

If you can, lay the victim face-up on a flat surface, with feet higher than head.

One way to reverse the process is with warm, moist fabrics applied directly to the skin, remoistened with water at about 110°F. Others are a warm blanket with a hot water bottle, a warm bathtub or shower, a sleeping bag with a heat source or even your own body heat. Be sure to make provisions for restoring your own lost body heat during and especially after this procedure.

Mouth-to-mouth breathing works as well, even when a subject is conscious, because your own breath will be warmer than the victim’s. Be sure to breathe “with” the victim, not against him. You may also want to wrap the victim’s head in a loose scarf to conserve the heated air.

Here are some equally important Don’ts: Don’t use or give alcohol, rub frozen body areas (especially don’t rub them with snow), accept a victim’s plea that he is “fine”, or wrap the victim in anything without a built-in source of heat.