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Preventing, treating hypothermia

Winter and cold weather are fast approaching. While hypothermia is not situation that we traditionally find ourselves or others encountering in eastern North Carolina, it is helpful to be prepared and know how to respond to help yourself or an individual who may be experiencing signs and symptoms of hypothermia.

Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees. The body loses heat faster than it can produce heat. Hypothermia is usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Up to 90% of body heat is lost through the skin through radiation and speeds up when the skin is exposed to wind or moisture. There are various degrees of hypothermia. There is mild (90-95 degrees), moderate (82-90 degrees), and severe (lower than 82 degrees) hypothermia. Signs of mild hypothermia are shivering, loss of judgement/fine motor coordination, slurred speech and loss of coordination. Signs of moderate hypothermia include decrease in shivering, loss of the ability to rewarm, altered mental status, loss of coordination and lack of feeling emotion. With severe hypothermia, there is risk of ventricular fibrillation (quivering of the heart) either spontaneously or response to stimulation, loss of consciousness, unreactive/fixed dilated pupils, rigid/unresponsive and no pulse/no respiration.

Those at risk for developing hypothermia are the elderly, infants and children without adequate heating, individuals with mental illnesses, people who are outdoors for long periods and people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, causing impaired judgment. For example, a frail older person who is malnourished in a 60-degree house after the power has gone out can develop mild hypothermia. Other causes of hypothermia can be caused by certain medical conditions such as diabetes and thyroid conditions. Some medications and severe trauma can increase the risk of hypothermia.

The temperature-control center of the brain is the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is located at the base of the brain and plays a crucial role in many things as well as regulating body temperature. Things you can do to ensure a healthy hypothalamus are maintaining a balanced diet, getting a good night’s sleep and plenty of exercise.

Hypothermia is a potentially life-threatening condition that needs immediate emergency medical attention. If you are unable to seek medical attention immediately, remove any wet clothing, protect yourself or the exposed individual against wind, drafts and further heat loss with warm blankets/clothes. Begin rewarming the individual by using warm blankets, warm clothes, hot packs and heating pads. Be careful not to burn the skin using hot packs. Offer the person warm liquids. Avoid alcohol and caffeine since they can speed up heat loss.

A few things to consider with severe critical cases is the process of rewarming the person. You want to add heat to stabilize the temperature only. Rapid rewarming, such as a hot shower or bath, may be fatal and cause complications. Allow the body to rewarm itself slowly. Body-core temperature lags behind skin temperatures during rewarming. Keep the victim protected for an extended period. Many hours are required for the body to return to normal temperatures

To prevent hypothermia wear layers of loose-fitting clothes, dress babies and children in one more layer than you would typically wear, wear mittens, neck scarf and a hat. Remember to stay dry and avoid sweaty activities in the cold. Remember cold temperatures are coming, and it’s a great idea to know how you can help should you find yourself this situation.

Daniele Davis, RN, BSN, is nurse manager of Vidant Beaufort Hospital’s Emergency Department and can be reaching by calling 252-975-8850.