The Prevention and Treatment of Hypothermia

Keeping Warm in Cold Weather

Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of hypothermia can save lives.

You need to keep warm when there is cold weather because getting cold can kill. Hypothermia is when the body temperature is allowed to fall to less than 35C. If the body temperature is below 32C there is a serious and present risk to maintaining life. If the body temperature falls below 28C this is usually known as severe hypothermia and needs immediate medical intervention.

Preventing hypothermia?

You can prevent hypothermia by some fairly obvious, but not always considered, measures. This article is written because many people tend to underestimate the risk of hypothermia and fail to use all the means at their disposal or try to save money.

Keeping Warm During the Day

Learn the signs and symptoms Shivering, confusion, apathy, lethargy heart rhythm irregularities, delirium and coma are all symptoms of hypothermia

  • Room temperature inside the house or dwelling should be at least 18C and preferably at least 21C.

  • If money is a problem then keep your main living room at 18C to 21C if possible other rooms you use should be heated to 16C.

  • Several layers of clothing are better for warm than relying on a thick sweater alone to keep you warm.

  • Clothing should preferably be of natural fibers (such as cotton or wool) or fleecy synthetic fibers.

  • Warm underwear is essential and preferably thermal underwear.

  • Set heating to come on before you are due to get up in the morning.

  • When you go outside wear a thick winter coat and combine this with a hat (preferably woolly), scarf and gloves. You lose as much as 11% of body heat through your head. Your fingers and other extremities are prone to frostbite, always wear gloves in freezing temperatures.

  • Forget the old wives tale about removing your coat when indoors or you will not feel the benefit. What counts in keeping warm is called your core temperature. This is your vital organs mainly in the trunk of the body. Remove your coat only when you feel it is too warm to keep the coat on.

Keeping warm at night

Learn all about the causes, symptoms, prevention and treatment of Hypothermia

  • At night you need a tog rating in duvets of at least 17 in freezing temperatures. Alternatively put several blankets on until you are warm enough at night.

  • But remember at night you may need to get up to use the toilet. When it is cold wear thermal underwear as well as pajamas, particularly in freezing temperatures. In very cold or freezing temperatures wear bed socks. Wear a dressing gown when you get up at night to keep the core temperature maintained.

  • At night do not use an electric blanket all night unless it is designed for this purpose.

  • Do not ever use a hot water bottle at the same time as an electric blanket.

  • Ideally, at night, the bedroom should be heated to 18C.

  • Heat the bedroom before retiring for the night

Keep Dry

Getting clothes wet when it is very cold is potentially dangerous. Body heat is quickly lost when clothes next to the skin are wet and cold. The insulation effectiveness of outer clothing is affected adversely when wet. If you get wet when it is raining or snowing, get out of wet clothes as soon as possible and put dry clothes on.

The role of Insulation in the home

Insulation does several things which are helpful. Insulation saves money on heating and makes heating quicker and more effective, although payback for investment varies on all measures taken.

  • First fit an insulation jacket, maybe two insulation jackets to hot water tanks.

  • Secondly insulate all hot water pipes which are outside or running through unheated areas.

  • Thirdly, make sure the loft has around 10 to12 inches of insulation. A loft with 4 inches of insulation (or less), needs topping up.

  • Silver foil behind radiators on external walls may reflect more heat into the room.

All the above measure saves and reduces money on heating costs quickly.

More Insulation Tips

If you can afford it double glaze windows and insulate cavities in walls.

These measures take much longer to payback but double glazing reduces cold spots in the house. Insulating cavity walls keeps more warmth in.

Draught proofing

It is important to fit draught proofing to all gaps around doors and windows. There is a need for ventilation but ventilation should be controlled and fitted.

Do Not Forget Floors. Floors lose heat. Some floors can be insulated. Alternatively put down rugs and carpets during cold weather. Tiled and concrete floors lose a lot of heat.

Consider Night Storage Heaters

In some countries electricity may be sold cheaper during certain times of the night. You usually need a qualified electrician to inspect and say whether your electrical system is robust enough for night storage heaters.

Night storage heaters heat up at night when electricity is cheapest and let out heat during the day.

Night storage heaters tend to be bulky. But they can provide useful background heat and should be considered if you are living in cold climates.

Recognizing Hypothermia

  • Severe uncontrollable shivering is an obvious sign of hypothermia.

  • The temperature of the body reads below 35C.

  • Tiredness, low energy and a cold skin are other signs of hypothermia.

  • Breathing may be increased.

  • As the hypothermia gets worse there may be confusion and loss of coordination.

  • The breathing may slow.

  • There may be drowsiness and an inability to pay attention.

  • There may be slurred speech.

In this later stage self help, the ability to recognize something is wrong and action needs to be taken is lost.

If the hypothermia is not treated then the person affected normally drifts into coma with slow or no breathing and slow or no peripheral pulse.

Death from severe hypothermia is inevitable unless medical intervention is made.

Treating Hypothermia

Treatment of hypothermia is normally aimed at raising the core temperature first to protect vital organs.

A space blanket or warm clothing and blankets are used to stop further loss of core temperature and the person affected has to have the room temperature up to about 24C or be moved to a warmer environment.

Once the person affected has severe hypothermia and loses consciousness they need urgent medical attention where radical methods of increasing core temperature will be utilized. Again during transport as much warm clothing as possible should be used to prevent further loss of core temperature.

Coughs, Colds and Infuenza

Coughs and colds are spread by being in close proximity to infected persons. Avoid contact with people who have coughs and colds.

If you have a cough or cold reduce contact with other people, at least try and contain spread of the diseases to people in your household.

Infuenza is also spread by close contact. The same rules apply as in coughs and colds but you can get inoculated against some forms of Influenza. Consider inoculation seriously if you are elderly or frail.

Winter Checklist

These are the things you must do as winter approaches in order to protect ourselves from hypothermia. Here are three important precautions to take each year before the cold really sets in.

  • We need to do a home inspection as soon as it starts getting cold.
  • We need to carefully consider our sleep arrangements, heating arrangements and winter clothes.
  • There is a genuine need to wrap up and keep warm.

Contributed to agewell.org by Richard K Ryland

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