This article originally appeared in Issue 2 of our magazine.

What is hypothermia and how does it affect the human body? Have you experienced a form of hypothermia and did not know it?

Most people walking this planet have no idea what hypothermia really is or what its signs and symptoms may be. Let’s say you and your buddies decide to go to a football game, and sometime between the tailgating and the sun setting you begin to feel cold. Next thing you know, your teeth are chattering and you start to shiver, but you suck it up because your buddies are powering on. Now your skin hardens, your fingers become hard to move, and your lips feel like they are burning. Whether you realize it or not, these are some of the beginning stages of hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat more rapidly than it can replace it. Commonly caused by exposure to cold weather or even being dunked in cold water, your bodily functions (heartbeat, blood flow, nervous system), and organs will rapidly start to degrade, which will lead to death. The human body operates best at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, but when your body is headed south of 95 degrees F, you’re in hypothermia territory.

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The cold can injure or even kill you just as heat does, and in some cases, the cold can do it faster and more painfully. Like other medical conditions, there are different severities of hypothermia, and just as with heat-related emergencies, cold-related emergencies are affected by your body’s thermostat, the hypothalamus.

Symptoms

There are three levels of hypothermia. In mild cases, you’ll see some shivering and hypotension. If it gets worse, moderate cases will demonstrate more intense shivering, along with paleness of the skin, bluing of lips, ears, fingers, and toes. You’ll also notice that the patient will seem alert, but steadily lose their coordination and display confusion and less agility. When things get even more serious, the skin will become blue and puffy. Severe cases also show difficulty in speaking and thinking as well as low blood pressure, slowed breathing, and in many cases, irrational behavior and labored walking. Strangely enough, sometimes victims suffering from severe stages will begin to strip off their clothes, believing that they feel overheated. The stripping of the clothes increases heat loss, which leads to death.

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Treatment

Treatment of all types of hypothermia and other cold-related emergencies is simple. Attempt to get out of the elements as quickly as possible. If you are stranded, you must find shelter or make shelter and get warm by bundling up and, if possible, building a fire. If you’re wet, get dry as soon as possible. Bundle up, under blankets without direct contact with the cold ground. Thermal balance must be maintained for survival. Getting out of the elements and creating a warming environment around you will take care of mild cases.

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Don’t be too shy to share body heat by initiating skin-to-skin contact. Also, drinking warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated drinks will help. Application of hot water bottles in the armpit and groin areas would help sufferers of moderate hypothermia. If the patient is suffering from a severe case, professional medical assistance will be required to introduce warm fluids into the patient intravenously. Dangerously shallow breathing might require CPR.

Prevention

The best way to avoid hypothermia is to stay warm, dry, and hydrated. It’s important to wear the proper clothing and shoes or boots for the elements. A good rule of thumb is to maintain a good, comfortable level of body heat in cold temperature. Don’t overdo it and bundle up until you’re sweating. On the other hand, don’t go out in the cold in your birthday suit, either. It’s also probably a good idea to pass on the next polar bear plunge, too.

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Maintaining Body Temperature

In cold weather, your body burns more calories faster than in warmer climates. The more you move, the more energy you burn, and the more your body needs to be hydrated. Your primary objective is to stay hydrated. Maintaining a level body temperature goes hand in hand with hydration. Layering clothing is also very important to help maintain your body’s core temperature. Excessive sweating in cold environs is not a good thing since it makes it harder for your body to stay warm. The best way to balance your body warmth is to make adjustments to your clothing as necessary by putting on or taking off layers.

Alcohol

Alcohol can play a role in dehydration. Alcohol when consumed is absorbed rather quickly by the body because of its smaller molecular makeup. Your body wants to process this foreign substance faster, and it then uses water to process the alcohol. That’s why you have to pee when you get hammered. Your body wants to pee it out — and quickly. In a hypothermia situation, depleting water from your body has the opposite desired effect of what we are attempting to achieve. So when you’re freezing, it’s a good idea to avoid that bottle of bourbon or vodka. It may feel like it’s warming you up, but in the end, it’ll freeze you, maybe even to death.

Even after one recovers from the symptoms of hypothermia, it’s a good idea to have a trained medical professional examine the patient to make sure they are fully recovered. Hypothermia is a dangerous killer that can be avoided with proper preparation. When it’s cold out, make sure you take in water and you are properly bundled up. But, hypothermia isn’t the only condition to keep an eye out for. There are other dangers to cold environments, as well. Take a look at the sidebars on these pages to learn what else to avoid.

Other Cold-Induced Injuries

Frost Nip

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Frost nip by definition is damage to the skin and underlining tissue as a result of exposure to severe cold. The signs of frost nip are:

  • Possibly red or pale grayish skin tone
  • Hard and waxy appearance with a burning sensation
  • Numbness and stiff joints
  • Cracking and painful skin

This usually occurs to exposed areas of the body, such as the hands, fingers, toes, noes, ears, or cheeks. While this is occurring, you may not even be aware of it once the numbness sets into those areas. If exposure to the elements continues, the next level of severity would be frostbite.

Frostbite

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Frostbite is an injury to body tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold, typically affecting the extremities. Prolonged exposure could result in gangrene or tissue death.

Frostbite signs are:

  • Reddening of the skin that turn white or pale
  • Direct exposure would have an icy appearance
  • Stinging, burning sensation with swelling to the affected area
  • Over a 24-hour period, you could develop blisters
  • Loss of sensation with continued pain
  • Reduced movement or range of motion in joints and muscles

As the skin continues to be exposed to the extreme cold, the tissue on the surface will be damaged. However, the real problems start with extended exposure to the cold and when the underlining layers of skin are damaged. This could result in damage to blood vessels and capillaries, and it will eventually kill the cells. This is where gangrene starts to set in. If it does, professional medical assistance must be sought immediately.

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Trench Foot

Trench foot is a painful condition to the feet caused by long exposure to cold water or mud and marked by blackening and death of surface tissue. It also leads to gangrene or tissue death occurring at the affected area. Keep in mind these are the worst-case situations to extreme cold exposure. The key point here is exposure as it’s related to time and temperature. The colder it is, the worse the damage to the body.

Trench foot signs and symptoms are:

  • Tingling or itching sensation with pain and swelling
  • Numbness, prickly needle feeling in the feet
  • Tissue death may occur and start to peel off
  • Blisters surrounding affected area

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