Although many cases of hypothermia arise from being outdoors in cold weather or water, it can happen at home as well. During the winter, stay aware of how cold your house is. People have become hypothermic in houses that were around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Celsius). Power outages in the winter can also send temperatures plunging, making it essential to wrap up and keep warm.
People are most susceptible to hypothermia outdoors. Whether you get stranded in a snowy field or fall into a chilly lake, you can become hypothermic quickly. So you should be prepared.
First, properly fuel yourself. Remember that the body requires food and nutrients to make heat, so going out without eating enough or being dehydrated can put you at risk. Carbohydrates, proteins and fats are the prime food groups to munch on since they provide both short- and long-term energy supplies.
Sweet, non-caffeinated beverages are also appropriate, since the sugar will boost energy quickly. Caffeinated drinks hinder your body from absorbing water, promoting dehydration. Alcohol and smoking should also be completely avoided. Both of these make your blood vessels expand, which is called vasodilatation, and your body lets off heat faster.
In wintery weather, it is also essential that you dress for the C.O.L.D.:
- Cover: Since we lose so much heat from our head, we should wear scarves and hats over head, neck and face. Mittens are also better protectors than gloves because they trap more heat.
- Overexertion: Be careful to not overwork yourself in the cold. If you deplete your body's energy reserves, you will have a harder time warming back up when you get cold.
- Layer: Wear loose clothing in multiple layers. To prevent yourself from sweating and cooling down too much, remove a layer if you get hot. Looser clothing retains heat well, but your sleeves should fit snugly at the wrists. Thermal underwear can also be an effective base layer to keep heat close to your body.
- Dry: Choose insulating fabrics such as wool, silk and polypropylene, rather than absorbent cotton. If your clothes get wet, remove them as soon as possible since water cools the body much faster than cold air.
[source: Mayo Clinic]
Even in warmer weather, water-related accidents can lead to hypothermia. For that reason, wear a lifejacket while on boats and do not drink alcohol while on boats or around water.
If you fall into cold water, it can cool your body up to 32 times faster than air [source: U.S. Search & Rescue Task Force]. Freezing cold water can also render someone unconscious in less than 15 minutes. It's critical to preserve body heat. People who have fallen in cold water should resist the automatic urge to flail or tread water. And unless the shore is less than 200 yards away, people also shouldn't try to swim to land [source: Piantadosi]. Doing so only drains precious energy stores. Instead, if alone in the water, you should pull your knees into your chest with your hands at your sides. If a group of people are in the water, they should huddle together to share body heat.
In the next section, we'll learn what to do if someone exhibits signs of hypothermia. Can you help restore that person to their normal temperature?