The winter months are almost officially upon us. Temperatures have been steadily decreasing, getting close to or below freezing at night. As the weather changes around us we become more conscious of how it affects our bodies.
Winter months offer people great opportunities to get outdoors. It’s important to keep a few safety tips in mind to keep yourself safe during these cold wintry nights.
Hypothermia is an all-too-common call for the Boulder City Fire Department during these next few months. Although hypothermia can affect anyone at any age, we specifically see more senior citizens as well as adolescents who generally have more difficulty combating the cold. By taking a few extra safety precautions, you can help keep yourself and your family safe from any environmental emergencies this winter.
Hypothermia is the opposite of hyperthermia. A person’s body has been exposed to the cold-weather elements for an extended amount of time and the thermoregulation mechanism in the body begins to shut down. Hypothermia is defined as a core body temperature that has dropped below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The body begins to recognize that it is “freezing” and starts a sequence of survival interventions. Hypothermia is classified into three categories: mild, moderate and severe.
Symptoms of mild hypothermia are vague and subjective to each individual. Initially, your body will experience some shivering, as well as an increase in your heart and respiratory rates. This is your body’s attempt to keep warm. Second, you experience vasoconstriction: The body’s blood vessels will begin to shunt blood to the core of the body to ensure the safety and protection of its vital organs. The final stages of mild hypothermia will be the beginning phases of confusion and altered mental status.
Where mild hypothermia ends moderate hypothermia begins. The body has long shunted its blood to the vital organs and, as your mind struggles to maintain sense and sensibility, your muscles begin to slowly shut down.
Movement and coordination become heavily obstructed. As motor skills and the body’s muscular system become ineffective, the brain stumbles into a moderate case of confusion. The skin will become pale, as fingers, toes, ears and lips begin to turn blue.
Finally the last stage of hypothermia is severe hypothermia. In the final stages of hypothermia the body is in its last attempts to survive. The heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure all begin to decrease rapidly. With a core body temperature below 86 degrees Fahrenheit, the body has completely altered and become confused. Sluggish thinking and amnesia, as well as an inability to use your hands or feet are involved. Cellular metabolism shuts down and the person experiences complete incoherent and irrational behavior, commonly explained as being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
As you can tell, hypothermia is dangerous and can be seriously life threatening in the desert. Special attention should be given to kids as well as senior citizens who normally need extra help. Keep safe by bundling up during the coldest times of the day. Use a nice dry winter coat. Use thick wool socks on your feet, as well as wear a winter cap and scarf to help keep your head, neck and ears warm.
If you suspect someone of having any degree of hypothermia, you should contact 911 immediately. Paramedics as well as emergency hospital doctors and nurses are trained in handling environmental emergencies and will begin the process of rewarming and taking care of any subsequent emergencies secondary to the hypothermia.
If you have any other questions regarding hypothermia, feel free to contact me at the firehouse at 702-293-9228. Thanks and have a great weekend.
Brian Shea is a Boulder City paramedic/firefighter.