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Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia

January 7, 2022

Minnesota winters are blissful, idyllic scenes of hoarfrost and poofy white snowdrifts—at least until you step out the door. Then weather becomes a vicious monster looking to gnaw off your fingers, toes, and any other bits of exposed skin.

It’s no secret that our winters are tough, and with 62 cold-related deaths in Minnesota in 2019, it’s especially important to go into the season knowing how to identify and treat cold-related conditions, like hypothermia.

What is Hypothermia?

There’s a common misconception that you need to get wet to enter a hypothermic state, but that’s not always the case. Hypothermia occurs when your core body temperature, which typically rests at 98 degrees, falls below 95 degrees. While being doused in water will greatly assist in lowering your body’s temperature, it’s not necessary for developing hypothermia, especially with extreme temperatures or prolonged exposure at play.

Preventing Hypothermia

Hypothermia’s name stems from its effect on the body’s hypothalamus, a part of the autonomic nervous system that controls body temperature. When cold, the hypothalamus will warm the body, but in a hypothermic state, the body is unable to adequately warm itself.

This is usually due to prolonged exposure to cold weather, but anyone who’s faced the full brunt of a Minnesota winter knows even a short period in sub-arctic temperatures can cause hypothermia and frostbite. The cold weather’s effects are exacerbated when your skin is exposed, since nearly all heat loss is through the skin, which is why it’s so important to ensure you’re properly layered when going outside.

During hypothermia, the body’s organs begin to shut down, and vasoconstriction begins. Vasoconstriction is the constriction of blood vessels, which limits the flow of blood to the extremities. It’s also one of the reasons fingers and toes take longer to warm, as well as why they’re more susceptible to frostbite. Movement increases blood flow, so it’s often smart to wear thick clothing that still permits movement. Limiting your time outdoors can help prevent hypothermia, but there is no better defense than caution and knowledge of the symptoms.

Hypothermia Symptoms

Shivering, one of your hypothalamus’ natural responses to cold, is a good sign that your body’s temperature regulation system is working. However, when shivering stops without your body’s temperature normalizing, it is often a sign of hypothermia progressing. Other signs of hypothermia include:

  • Exhaustion or drowsiness
  • Loss of motor control or coordination
  • Loss of memory
  • Confusion
  • Shallow breathing
  • Slurring speech
  • Irregular pulse
  • Loss of consciousness

If you notice the signs of hypothermia, get the victim to shelter and help them lay down. Remove wet clothes and layer them with warm, dry garments or blankets. Hypothermia is a medical emergency, so you should call for help as soon as possible, especially if they’re unconscious. If the victim stops breathing, call 911 and begin CPR immediately.

If you don’t know CPR, there’s no better time to learn than now. Specialized Health and Safety provides a fun, safe environment for people of all ages to learn the necessary skills to save a life. Schedule a class time today, and visit our blog for more articles on cold weather safety.