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Hypothermia Prevention and Treatment

Hypothermia and Thermal Shock are One of the Major Causes of Drowning

By

Hypothermia Safety is Mostly Focused on Polar Regions

Hypothermia can Occur in Arctic or Tropical Waters

US Antarctic Program

Hypothermia symptoms and treatments are part of every complete water safety course. This also is one of the most quickly forgotten safety lessons. Hypothermia and its cousin thermal shock are major causes of death and drowning anywhere water is found.

We all love the water; it is often why we work in this business. Our year around proximity to water puts sailors and harbor workers at a greater risk of hypothermia because of the excellent conducting properties of water.

One of the greatest myths about hypothermia is that it is only a risk in very cold water, when in fact, water at comfortable swimming temperatures will cause hypothermia.

Water Temperature and Hypothermia Risk

Springtime operations bring extra activity and extra risk to maritime workers. Ship crews take part in immersion suit drills at least once a year, sometimes more often if the operations are Arctic or Antarctic. Large and small vessels have their safety gear, including immersion suits, inspected and certified annually. But many marinas, maintenance yards, and seasonal operations take few precautions to protect their workers or customers from the dangers of hypothermia.

Water temperatures from freezing to body temperature, 98.6 F (37 C), can cause hypothermia. The onset of symptoms depends on time of exposure.

What?; You’re crazy, you can’t get hypothermia in warm water! When we were kids we would use pieces of ice as paddleboards! Then we would walk home with no shoes in the snow.

Actually any water cooler than your core temperature will eventually cause your body to lose heat faster than it can be replaced by metabolic processes; it only takes a few degrees of heat loss to have the symptoms of hypothermia. Hypothermia is defined medically as a core temperature of 95 F (35 C) or lower.

Symptoms of Hypothermia

The symptoms of hypothermia are the same if you are in or out of the water.

  • Shivering; first of the extremities then the torso. This is your body trying to stay warm by working muscles. The heart works harder to keep blood flowing to the muscles. Shivering is an aerobic exercise.
  • Hyperventilation; the body needs increased oxygen to power shivering muscles
  • Numbness and Lack of Coordination; nerves become less responsive in cold temperatures as blood flow decreases.
  • Loss of Cognition; thought processes become more difficult as the body draws blood to the core and away from the extremities.

Advanced symptoms can occur in less than two minutes or may take many hours depending on temperature and other factors.

  • Cessation of Shivering; the body has exhausted its energy supplies.
  • Cardiac Arrest; high blood pressure, physical stress, and existing conditions can lead to heart failure
  • Unconsciousness
  • Organ Failure and Death

Even advanced hypothermia can be treated with success if the best actions are taken.

Treatment of Hypothermia

These are basic guidelines for treating hypothermia. Professional advice and a good, accessible first aid kit and the training to use it cannot be suggested strongly enough.

  • Identify the Victims’ Symptoms. Be sure hypothermia is the problem and not some other condition.
  • Be Sure the Victim Knows You are Trying to Help Them. Lack of mental clarity could make them think you mean to harm them.
  • Call for Professional Help and Get the Victim to a Warm Shelter.
  • Remove Any Wet Clothing and replace with blankets or dry clothing. Use most of your clothing to warm the victim but do not impair your ability to respond. Check for secondary injury at this time.
  • If the Victim is Conscious Offer Warm Drinks.
  • Don’t Use Direct Heat in Most Cases, it could cause cardiovascular strain.
  • Be Aware of Dehydration Due to Exertion.

A Bigger Threat Than Hypothermia

A much faster way of drowning in cold water is thermal shock. This can happen in moderately cold water and responses vary by individual.

If a person is exposed to cold water there is a reflexive response to gasp and breathe rapidly. If the exposure to water is the result of falling from a vessel or dock the person may be submerged when this gasp occurs resulting in an intake of water. In the worst cases the lungs might become mostly full.

It is not possible to suppress this reflex. If you doubt this fact turn on the cold water in your shower and try to breathe normally.

It is vitally important to wear a proper PFD when working around cold water. The device will bring you to the surface where you can successfully expel the water from your airway.

Preventing Hypothermia

  • Use the Buddy System; watch out for others. Most hypothermia is minor if quick action is taken.
  • Dress Properly for the Weather. Hypothermia can occur from air cooling as well as immersion.
  • Wear a Floatation Device, Immersion Suit, or Overboard Sensor depending on the situation. A whistle on you gear will signal louder and with less effort than shouting.
  • If offshore, Try to Climb Onto Debris or Disabled Vessel. Even having part of your body out of the water will slow heat loss. It is almost always better to leave the water even if the air is much colder, air insulates but water conducts.
  • Stay Calm and try to calm others.
  • Tuck pants into socks, zip jackets, and hold bent legs against your torso to Trap Warm Water Near Your Body.
  • If several people are immersed group tightly together to Share Warmth.

Finally, learn about the conditions you operate in. The decision to swim for shore depends on local conditions like current and water temperature. Leaving your vessel might make it difficult for rescuers to find you but will anyone know you are late or missing? Can you distress signals be seen?

The key to avoiding and surviving dangerous situations is based on knowledge and good decision making.

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