Hypothermia is a lowering of the body’s core temperature, which can result in death, and can occur as a result of:
- Accidental immersion in cold water.
- Inadequate protection from the cold environment, especially when combined with altitude, wind, moisture and physical exhaustion.
- Exposure to cold, especially in the unconscious, the elderly, young children and the injured.
Hypothermia is easy to prevent. When it occurs it is usually from lack of preventive action rather than unavoidable circumstances.
These simple measures will prevent the likelihood of hypothermia:
- Adequate protection from cold, wind and moisture. Wear appropriate clothing, stay dry and beware of wind.
- Regular intake of food and non-alcoholic drinks. Eat appropriate energy food such as fruit or warm sweet fluids, if available, and drink regularly.
- Sound planning, training and experienced leadership. Always carry a large plastic bin liner bag in your daypack as a precaution.
Know how to recognise the signs of hypothermia. If hypothermia is apparent, stop immediately and seek shelter.
One or more of the following signs should alert others to the onset of hypothermia:
- Careless about protecting against the cold.
- Unusual or irrational behaviour.
- Poor judgement.
- Displays apathy, ie lacks interest.
- Slurred speech.
- The person feels cold to touch and is unusually pale.
The natural tendency to ‘press on’ must be avoided. This applies to groups as well as individuals. Regrouping on the spot and commencement of treatment is more important than panic evacuation from the area.
The basic principles of first aid and resuscitation apply, plus additional specific measures to stop further body cooling.
If any member of the party develops the signs of hypothermia:
- Stop immediately.
- Protect casualty from wind and moisture – find or improvise shelter.
- Put on extra layers of clothing, remembering to cover the head and put on wind/water proof jacket and overpants.
- Insulate the body from the snow, especially the head.
- Prevent further heat loss by covering the casualty with any available waterproof material.
- Huddle together.
- Give easily digested food and drink, warm if possible.
- Ensure all party members put on extra clothing, including head cover.
- Send for medical assistance.
Treating a conscious person with hypothermia
- Carefully lay the casualty down.
- Protect from the cold environment and prevent any further heat loss by placing insulating material under the person – use packs, jackets, mats, bags – whatever you can find.
- If a large plastic bin liner or garbage bag is available, place the casualty feet first into the bag, ensuring that the body and neck are enclosed. Arms and hands should not be covered by the bag. (The casualty may have to be placed in the coma position.) Do not cover the head or face with the bag.
- Cover with a blanket or sleeping bag and ensure the head and neck are covered with a beanie, jumper or fibre pile jacket, leaving the mouth, nose and eyes visible.
- Do not give alcohol, cigarettes, strong coffee, or tea.
- Do not attempt to stimulate the peripheral circulation by rubbing or massaging the extremities.
- Do not expose the patient to hot air or direct radiant heat from a fire. The application of external heat could worsen the person’s condition.
Treating an unconscious person with hypothermia
- An unconscious person must be handled with extreme care.
- Minimise unnecessary movement.
- Do not give any food or drink to an unconscious person.
- Signs of life may be minimal but continue treatment until help arrives.
- Provide the normal care of airway, breathing and circulation.
- With the person in the lateral or coma position, prevent further heat loss by insulating, and protecting from the cold environment.
- If adequate insulation and a warm shelter are available, gently remove the outer wet layers (it may be necessary to cut clothing to aid removal), dry off, replace with layers of dry clothing and insulate.
- If shelter is not ideal, leave wet clothing on, add extra layers of clothing over the existing wet ones and cover with any available waterproof material. Wrap casualty in a sleeping bag or blanket to prevent further heat loss. If a large plastic bin liner or garbage bag is available, place the casualty feet first into the bag, ensuring that the body and neck are enclosed. Arms and hands should not be covered by the bag. Do not cover the head or face with the bag.
- If medical care is not available, the rescuer should ensure extra body warmth is provided by placing a companion on either side and close to the casualty. Ensure all are insulated from the ground, preferably in sleeping bags.
- Use caution in applying external chemical heat sources or hot water bottles, never apply these directly to the skin.
Seek medical assistance immediately, providing you are not endangering yourself or other party members.
For ambulance, police and fire emergencies, call ‘000’ or contact your local ski patrol.
Prevent emergency situations
Emergencies are often the result of poor planning and/or foolhardy behaviour. If you do find yourself in difficulties, stop and think.
Knowledge of your own capabilities is an important safety factor. Individual skills and fitness levels vary greatly. What is quite safe for one person to attempt may be foolhardy for someone else.
Know your capabilities and keep well within them at all times.