Spring is almost here and many anglers and boaters are heading back to the lakes and rivers to finally get out onto the water. Even though the weather is warm, most people forget just how cold the water can be. All it takes is an unexpected wave, the tug of a big fish, or a little clumsiness to send you into the frigid water.
But hypothermia isn't a threat to only fishermen. Many hunters and hikers set out on warm spring days, wearing just jeans and a t-shirt. All this cotton, no back up clothes and unpredictable spring weather is a combination to a hypothermia emergency.
So what is hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a medical event that occurs when a person's body core temperature drops below 95 degrees. This can be caused by exposure to water, wind, very cold air or all of the above. A decrease in critical body heat can result in a loss of dexterity, poor mental state, a loss of consciousness and eventually death. A few minutes in cold water makes it very difficult to swim, or even to stay afloat. Also, the sudden shock of hitting cold water can cause a reflexive "gasp" allowing water to enter the lungs, so that drowning can be almost immediate.
Always wear your PFD!
Why is the cold water so bad? Your body can cool down 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air. Be aware that children, the elderly, the ill and the very slender are at more risk of cooling down and becoming hypothermic than someone who is bigger.
Spot the Symptoms of Hypothermia
There are several signs that you can watch for to catch hypothermia while it is still treatable in the field.
- Mild Hypothermia
Symptoms: confusion, slurred speech, numbness or tingling in the skin
Check to see if the person can touch his thumb to his pinky finger of the same hand. The forearm muscles are the first to lock up in mild hypothermia. These sluggish forearm muscles are a good indicator of body warmth, and give you a good clue before shivering begins.
- Moderate Hypothermia
Symptoms: violent shivering, clumsiness, lack of coordination, pale skin, blue-colored extremities.
- Severe Hypothermia
Symptoms: difficulty speaking, trouble walking or moving, amnesia, extreme tiredness, irrational behavior
Rewarming someone is the main method of treatment, both in the field and in the hospital.
- Passive external rewarming involves the use of a person's own heat-generating ability. You can get the victim out of wet clothes, and into some properly insulated dry clothing and a warm environment. Give the victim a little high-calorie food and warm sips of a hot beverage if the hypothermia is mild.
- Active external rewarming involves applying warming devices externally such as a hot water bottle in both armpits. Never use hot baths to treat a hypothermic person, as it can cause a heart attack.
- Active core rewarming should only be administered by a professional because it involves the use of intravenous warmed fluids, irrigation of body cavities with warmed fluids, use of warm humidified inhaled air, or use of extracorporeal rewarming such as a heart lung machine. None of this should be attempted in the field, and be aware that moderate to severe hypothermia victims often go into shock as they rewarm.
Always get yourself or your buddies to the doctor if you even suspect hypothermia. It can shake loose other medical events like a heart attack or stroke. And remember what your mama said: always bring an extra jacket.