MANY thousands of people are crippled or killed each year because they underestimate cold weather hazards. It doesn’t require subzero exposure before inner organs lose their precious warmth. “Many cases occur in moderately cold temperatures”, says Dr. Cameron C. Bangs, an Oregon City, Ore., expert’ on cold weather injuries. Particularly vulnerable are small children, whose bodies lose heat faster than adults do; the elderly, who are often undernourished or on medications that alter the body’s temperature response; people with underactive thyroids; the unusually slender; dieters; and alcoholics.
Here are six steps you can take to avoid hypothermia:
Eat properly: Dieters and extremely thin people often develop hypothermia at temperatures others can easily withstand. The reason: they do not have the insulation that fat cells provide. Moreover, their bodies contain less fuel — i.e.: their food or body fat — to convert into heat. Experts suggest carrying high calorie snacks if you expect to be out long.
Prevent dehydration: This is particularly important during exercise. Fluid loss from perspiration and from breathing dry air can substantially reduce your blood volume. “The brain and heart cannot perform properly without adequately oxygenated blood”, says Dr. James A. Wilkerson, editor of the book Medicine for Mountaineering. His advice: drink extra fluids before prolonged outdoor activity, and take along a hot beverage.
Avoid alcohol: A nip gives the illusion of warmth because it dilates blood vessels and brings a rush of blood to the skin. But this also takes blood away from core organs, rapidly depressing body temperature.
Know the effects of drugs: Some medications — such as drugs to control blood pressure, antidepressants, and certain heart medicines — affect the body’s response to outside temperature changes. Warning labels aren’t always required. Ask your doctor about potential dangers of any prescription you are taking.
Wear appropriate clothing: Many campers experience hypothermia in summer. “They start out wearing only light clothes,” says Dr. Bangs. “But mountain temperatures on summer night can drop into the 40s” clothing and a stove for warming liquids.
Remember the three L’s: light, loose and layered. A thin outer shell can prevent wind from penetrating. Loose, multiple garments trap layers of air, providing additional insulation, and give you the ability to add or shed clothes as conditions change.
Four areas demand special attention. Up to one third of a body’s heat, loss comes from the head and neck, so a hat and scarf are essential. For the hands, experts suggest water resistant mittens to provide an “envelope” of warm air; for feet, water repellent, loose fitting shoes with thick woolen socks. The groin should be protected by not too snug underwear and windproof outer clothing.
Stay dry: Water, when it evaporates, speeds the cooling of your body by absorbing heat. Try to minimize perspiration by dressing lightly and working slowly. Wear an outer garment that repels water yet allows your body to “breathe”. If you are wet or cold, get out of the wind. “Wind chill kills,” says Dr. Charles S. Houston, an expert on high altitude illnesses.
These precautions can go a long way toward preventing hypothermia. Nevertheless, at times the cold will take its toll. Most of us have experienced the early signs of lowered core temperature: shivering, which is the body’s way of speeding metabolism and generating heat, and frequent urination as the kidneys step up their activity. Neither symptom is serious, but both call for more clothing, warm liquids and protection from the elements.
If exposure continues, though, symptoms of moderate hypothermia will apear: bewilderment, clumsiness and a strangely negative attitude.
A prime danger sign of profound hypothermia is the cessation of shivering and the loss of consciousness. The victim now needs medical care.
Clearly, loss of internal body heat is a condition not to be taken lightly. Today a wide range of people participate in activities that put them at risk for hypothermia — hikers, bicyclists, joggers, boaters, swimmers, even the elderly snoozing on a park bench.
The best way of avoiding it? “Know about the condition”, says Dr. Wilkerson, “and take the recommended steps to prevent it.”