Hypothermia: Stay warm, stay dry, stay alive

Posted: Friday, March 19, 2010

Last month a friend responded to a snowmachine accident north of Seward. As he and other members of the search-and rescue-team made their way on snowmachines to the injured rider, the weather deteriorated to blizzard conditions. The rescue team made it to the injured party and determined that the victim had a back injury and was unable to ride out of the mountains on a sled. A helicopter was requested to medevac the victim out, but due to poor weather conditions, no aircraft was able to fly. Unprepared, the rescue team, victim and his friends settled in for an unexpected cold and wet night out in the mountains.

Early the next morning a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was able to reach the victim and transport him to the hospital, where he was treated for his injuries. Tired, wet, and cold, the remainder of the responding party snowmachined back out of the mountains. With his clothes soaked and caked with snow and ice, my friend rendezvoused with additional emergency medical responders that had staged at the trailhead. Unable to warm himself up, he was unaware he was becoming hypothermic. Medics on scene recognized his symptoms and treated him for mild hypothermia. They got him out of the weather, removed his wet clothing, and warmed him up with dry blankets and heat pads. He was later transported to the hospital where he was reassessed and released.

Many of us who enjoy getting out and recreating in Alaska know that a bluebird winter day can quickly change. A fun afternoon of snowshoeing, ice fishing or snowmachining can become a life threatening situation if hypothermia sets in. Hypothermia can be a serious concern to anyone, especially if he or she is unable to recognize and treat the symptoms.

Before medical experts knew much about hypothermia, being cold and wet was simply considered part of the hardship of being outdoors. If you became cold, you did not complain. You just carried on. Hypothermia, however, is a physical condition where the body loses heat faster than it is being replaced. This results in the body core temperature dropping below 98.6 degrees. Exposure to cold water, snow, wind and even one's own perspiration will accelerate the progression of the condition. Eventually the brain, heart, lungs and other vital organs are affected. Even a mild case of hypothermia can exhaust a person's physical and mental abilities and increase the risks of accidents. If left untreated, severe hypothermia may result in unconsciousness and possibly death.

A person may be alert, but unaware that he or she is becoming mildly hypothermic (described as a body core temperature drop to 97 degrees or below). Shivering, cold hands and feet, loss of dexterity, and pain from cold are some of the symptoms. This can easily turn into a moderate case (body core temperature drops to 93 degrees or below) when the person's shivering slows or stops. Severe hypothermia will occur when the body temperature falls between 82 degrees and 90 degrees. Confusion, loss of reasoning, slurred speech, and muscular rigidity are some of the symptoms.

A person may refuse help or deny that he or she is having a problem. A state of semi-consciousness or even unconsciousness may set in. If a person's body temperature drops below 82 degrees, hypothermia becomes a critical situation. The body starts to shut down and vital signs weaken. A person may appear to be dead as muscle rigidity increases, and the skin turns cold and appears bluish-gray in color. A victim will not live long in this condition unless immediate medical attention is received.

Recognizing the symptoms of hypothermia is paramount for treatment and preventing further heat loss. With a mild case of hypothermia, allowing the body to re-warm itself and retain body heat will correct the situation. This can be accomplished by replacing wet clothing with warm and dry ones, sipping on a warm non-alcoholic drink, applying a gentle heat source, or doing some light exercises to warm up. Do not exercise to the point of perspiration, as it can limit the body's ability to warm back up in the cold.

With severe and critical cases of hypothermia it is important to obtain medical help as soon as possible. Treat the person for shock and handle them with extreme care. Do not give the victim any food or drink. Apply a mild heat source to the head, neck, chest and groin to minimize further loss of body heat. Get out of the wind, rain or snow, find shelter, and build a fire if possible.

Hypothermia can occur in almost any environment at air temperatures below or above freezing. However, most cases tend to take place between 30 and 50 degrees, when victims underestimate the danger of exposure to the elements. Anyone can get hypothermia; it can strike even the most highly trained and experienced individuals in the outdoors.

While it remains the number one killer of outdoor enthusiasts and a serious concern for all search and rescue personnel, hypothermia can be prevented. Always be prepared for the unexpected when you travel outdoors. Have a plan, carry a personal first aid kit, and wear the appropriate gear. Wear clothes that are warm and made of natural fibers, such as wool, or lightweight moisture-wicking synthetic material, such as polypropylene. Clothing worn in loose layers provides better insulation then a heavy single-layer garment. Avoid cotton, as it loses all its insulating properties and becomes worthless when wet. Keep an extra base layer to change into in case you get wet, and wear a good pair of warm, water-resistant boots. Stay warm, stay dry, stay alive!

Joe Williams is a Refuge Law Enforcement Officer at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge Web site, http://kenai.fws.gov/. You can check on local birds or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline at 907-262-2300.

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