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Safety Pro

The Hazards of Hypothermia

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10/01/2010 - Have you ever been so cold that you shivered and shivered, only to find that in a few minutes you stopped shivering? Well, if you weren't sucking down hot chocolate or getting out of the cold to warm up, you were sliding the slope into a condition known as hypothermia.

Hypothermia is a generalized cooling of the entire body. It does not require sub-freezing temperatures - it can occur at 55 degrees F. All you need are cool temperatures, a mild breeze, a little rain or dampened clothing, and you are prime for exposure.

Hypothermia begins when your body temperature drops from its 98.6 degrees F to about 95 degrees F. That will cause shivering. Continuing to cool to around 92 degrees F, you stop shivering. Your judgment may become impaired. Reaction time slows. Eventually, your body shuts down.

Long-term outside exposures - hunting, hiking, boating, kids playing outside - sets up hypothermia conditions. It is especially true for children and seniors. Children can't maintain body temperatures and lose body heat quickly. Seniors, often due to reduced movement or circulation, are also at risk. But don't mistake that for others not having the risk.

So how do we prevent hypothermia? Dress in layers so, as the temperatures change, you can remove or add clothing as needed. Select the right clothing. Cotton against the skin wicks away perspiration. Add another layer of cotton or wool, covered by insulating material with a sweater or jacket. Remember that wet wool provides more insulation than dry cotton. So if you wear jeans intending to remain outside for an extended time, consider a second layer of pants over the jeans.

Put something dry on or over your head (no, not a paper bag). An uncovered head loses up to 75% of body heat. Do something to warm up. Get inside, add more dry clothing, sip on some hot tea or chocolate – anything that will help your body temperature go up. I don't recommend more motion unless you will be able to get out of the cold. That will work against you by causing you to sweat, getting your clothes damp from sweat, and tire you more quickly.

One important note: If your clothes are wet, remove them! Of course, for the benefit of all, have something available that is dry to replace the wet. Wet clothing causes the heat in your body to evaporate quicker and it works just like a wick, taking more and more heat from you and putting it into the air. You don't have enough body heat to warm the atmosphere so don't try.

Don't "warm up" with alcohol as it actually depresses vital body functions (breathing and such) so all you do is feel warm and die cold.

Watch and protect your kids and don't forget your pets. A little prevention will save you a lot of grief. Do what is necessary to return or be safe at home.

Randy DeVaul (safetypro@roadrunner.com) is an internationally published writer/author and 30-year safety professional. Randy is the founder of Safe At Home (www.safeathomeonline.com). Comments always welcome.

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