News | Published January 30, 2019 | Written by Rich Kelley, NREMT-P, EMS clinical supervisor, Mount Nittany Medical Center

Recognize signs of hypothermia; remember pets and neighbors during extreme cold

The deep, freezing temperatures across the country as of late may be putting smiles on the faces of avid ice fishermen. However, the temperatures are not enjoyed by all; and for some people with pre-existing medical conditions, the extreme cold can be dangerous. 

Dress for the weather. Always layer so that you can adapt to environments. During extreme temperature events, remember that exposed skin can be compromised in minutes.

The body’s normal temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Every person’s body works hard to maintain that temperature. When the body temperature begins to fall, the body begins to shiver in an effort to produce more body heat. However, when the person’s body temperature falls faster than the body is able to produce body heat, hypothermia develops.  

Hypothermia is a condition where the body temperature drops to 95 degrees or lower. As a person becomes hypothermic, it begins to shunt blood away from the surface, or the skin, towards the body core in an attempt to keep the essential core organs warm.  

Signs of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering and exhaustion
  • Confusion and fumbling of hands
  • Slurred speech or memory loss
  • Drowsiness

Treatment includes getting the person to a warm environment quickly. In addition:

  • Remove any wet clothing from the victim and dry the victim as necessary.
  • Use a heating blanket if available. 
  • Warm beverages can help, but only if the person is coherent enough to swallow.
  • Call 911 or seek medical attention as soon as possible.

In cold weather, it’s also important to make sure your home heating systems are running smoothly and your vehicles are well maintained and stocked in case of an emergency breakdown.

  • Make sure all combustion-based devices are vented in accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations. Carbon monoxide is the odorless, colorless gas that is extremely hazardous at relatively low concentrations. Store flammable and combustible liquids appropriately, not inside of occupied spaces. If burning wood in a fireplace or insert, make sure the flue is clean and free of obstructions. Check and test all smoke alarms.
  • Weather protection – traditionally, windows and doors are where most heat is lost. Materials are available, such as plastic wrap and insulating boards, to help minimize the heat loss. Make sure all water services are protected and any outside faucets drained to prevent freezing.
  • Vehicle protection – test water / coolant for freeze protection characteristics and add antifreeze if indicated. Always try to maintain at least half a tank of fuel so that if a road temporarily closes or weather changes you are prepared. Place a blanket, thermal socks, and gloves in a preparedness pack inside your vehicle.

Lastly, please remember your pets and your neighbors in this extreme weather. Even if the pets normally live outside, bring them indoors during these types of temperatures if possible. Pay special attention to your elderly neighbors, too, making sure their home heating is working properly.