Most of us know enough to bundle up, wear gloves and hats and don insulated shoes when it’s cold outside. But if you work outdoors in the winter, are shoveling or playing in the snow after a storm, or enjoy outdoor recreational activities and walks, take precautions to avoid a common winter nemesis, hypothermia.
When you are exposed to chilly temperatures, cold winds, or wetness, your core body temperature falls below normal. This can happen easily and quickly. Your body automatically begins to shiver to warm itself. As your energy is used up to keep warm, you may reach a point where your body will be unable to re-warm itself. This is hypothermia. If left untreated, your body will gradually shut down and you can die, or risk frostbite and the potential loss of fingers and toes.
Protecting yourself from the elements
You can avoid hypothermia by guarding against dehydration, fatigue, cold winds, and wet clothes. Be sure to choose the right clothes, especially a fabric that keeps you the driest. Wetness conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than dryness, and when clothes get wet, they lose 90 percent of their insulating value. Don’t wear cotton, it absorbs moisture. Instead, choose wool or synthetic fibers that actually wick moisture away from your skin. Additionally, dress in layers to improve insulation and wear a hat – most body heat is lost through the head.
If you’re going to be hiking, recreating, or working outdoors, pack food and beverages. Dehydration contributes to hypothermia, so drink plenty of non-alcoholic liquids. Drinking alcohol is dangerous because it gives you a false sense of warmth while actually lowering your internal body temperature. Avoid coffee, tea, and tobacco products as well, because they also cause your body to lose heat. Eat high-energy foods like nuts, fruit, and energy bars for the calories your body needs to generate heat.
Beware of the wind – it multiplies the challenges of staying dry by carrying heat away from bare skin. Wind drives cold air under and through clothes and refrigerates wet clothes by evaporating moisture from the surface.
Understand the cold. Most hypothermia cases develop in air temperatures between 30 and 50 degrees, not necessarily in sub-zero temperatures. Cold water below 50 degrees is a rapid killer, as well. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security – dress warmly, bring extra gloves and socks and your bag of healthy goodies. Warning signs you should watch for include:
- Uncontrollable fits of shivering
- Vague, slow, or slurred speech
- Memory lapses or incoherence
- Immobile, fumbling hands
- Frequent stumbling or loss of coordination
What to do if you suspect you’re in trouble
If you recognize hypothermia in yourself or someone, take action. If the victim is unconscious, seek medical help immediately. If the victim is conscious, call for help and move the victim to shelter.
Be very gentle with unconscious or semi-conscious victims — their hearts are fragile and sensitive to jarring. Remove wet clothes, and replace them with warm, dry garments. If the victim is alert enough to hold a cup, give warm, but not hot, liquids to drink. Sugary drinks are especially helpful.
Moderate exercise such as walking will help generate heat. If unable to exercise or remain awake, place yourself or the victim in a sleeping bag to help speed re-warming, and insulate the sleeping bag with a plastic sheet (or a tarp) above and a pad below. Skin to skin contact is very effective, as well. If you have them, you can place warm rocks, canteens, hot water bottles or heating pads near main arteries close to the skin’s surface. Try to remain awake, and get to a hospital or medical center as soon as possible.
Playing and working outdoors is healthy, any time of year, as long as you take wise precautions and heed warning signs. Have fun and stay warm!
Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!