DIY: Treating hypothermia

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Hypothermia fireHere we look at hypothermia. Remember, these first aid suggestions are no substitute for getting a victim to a hospital as soon as possible, as it is very easy for the layperson to get the treatment wrong.

Doctors break hypothermia into three grades: mild (body temperature is 93-95° F), moderate (86-93° F) and severe (<86° F). A rectal thermometer that can register as low as 77° F is really necessary to monitor hypothermia. Treatment for each stage is different, although the first step is always to get the victim into a dry, windless and warm environment. And don’t give up.  Hypothermia victims have been placed in morgues and later recovered. No one is dead until they’re warm and dead!

For mild hypothermia, get the victim into dry clothes and wrap them in blankets or sleeping bags.  If you’re outdoors, seek shelter. If you’re indoors stay in a warm room but don’t overdo exposure to direct heat such as a fire. Give warm, sweet beverages – not caffeine or alcohol, these worsen dehydration. Carbohydrate-rich, high-energy foods will boost the metabolism.

To treat moderate hypothermia, remove the victim from the cold and focus on covering the neck and head (around 50% of heat is lost through the head).  If you’re in the wilds, place warm rocks or water bottles (in a sock) on the victim’s armpits and groin area.  These should be warmed to the point where you can comfortably hold them in your hand – not hot enough to cause burns.  If indoors, maintain the warmth with sleeping bags, blankets etc and stay in a warm room. Prevent quick movements and strenuous activity.  If conscious, give sweet, warm, non-alcoholic beverages.  Increase the amount of fluids and warmth of surroundings as their condition improves.

Severe hypothermia requires great care. Too much heat may bring about shock and heart failure. To prevent injury, warming should be carried out in a medical facility. The best field treatment is skin on skin contact, so put two or three warm, dry people under a pile of blankets or in a sleeping bag with the victim.  Do not attempt to administer fluids.  Just maintain temperature and be gentle with the victim.  Only administer CPR/rescue breathing if the victim has no pulse or stops breathing. Do not force victims to walk.  Movement may bring colder blood from the extremities into the trunk and cause shock.  Avoid rubbing skin or moving joints. In severe cases surgery may be necessary to avoid shock caused by blood flow from the extremities.

Note: Encourage hypothermia victims to urinate frequently.  Maintaining the temperature of a full bladder wastes body heat.