What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a serious condition where the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees centigrade). Also known as exposure when it occurs outdoors, hypothermia is a significant danger during the cold winter months. Hypothermia is actually a bodily defence mechanism against the cold. As the body’s temperature falls, it attempts to protect the brain and heart.

Countries with the mildest climates, like Ireland, suffer most during cold weather because culturally we are not geared for the cold. In cold countries like Norway, inhabitants pay close attention to housing design, warm clothing and the proportion of income spent on heating. According to figures from the EHRA, Ireland experiences a 30-32% increase in deaths each Winter, while Norway only sees a 2% increase.

Hypothermia causes a number of symptoms, and if anyone is experiencing a few of them during cold weather, or in cold conditions, then they are probably experiencing hypothermia. The symptoms include:

  • Pale skin.
  • Drowsiness and lethargic behaviour.
  • Mental confusion.
  • A loss of co-ordination.
  • Shivering.
  • Heavy breathing and slurred speech.
  • Feeling weak.
  • A state of shock.

Hypothermia can be very dangerous, as it can easily lead to unconsciousness and eventually death if the body’s temperature continues to fall. People experiencing hypothermia require immediate medical help.

What causes hypothermia?

Hypothermia is caused by being too cold for too long. The human body generates its own heat from the energy received from eating food. If it starts to lose more heat than it can generate, hypothermia will result. Common ways to catch hypothermia include:

  • Inadequate home heating during winter months.
  • Wearing wet clothing for a long time in winter.
  • Falling overboard into cold water.
  • Lying out in cold weather conditions e.g. after a fall outdoors, or unconsciousness brought on by excess alcohol.

Being run-down, hungry or thirsty can bring on hypothermia quicker. Sometimes people who are experiencing hypothermia may not be aware that they are unwell, as its onset is very slow and gradual.

Who is most likely to suffer from hypothermia?

Anyone can become hypothermic if they are exposed to very low temperatures or extreme weather for long enough. However, older people, those who have poor circulation, heart problems or are thin are the most likely to be affected. Older people are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia as they do not feel the cold in the way that younger adults do. Their mechanisms for regulating their body temperature may not be as efficient as it previously was because of their increasing age and chronic medical conditions.

In very bad weather, older people and children especially need to be well protected from the cold, as they are the first to experience hypothermic symptoms. People under the influence of alcohol or drugs are also more likely to contract hypothermia, because firstly their ability to tell how cold they are is impaired, and secondly their bodies’ ability to generate adequate body heat is lessened.

How can hypothermia be avoided?

In wintry weather, it is essential to eat well and wrap up warmly. In winter months, the body requires a greater intake of food to generate sufficient energy to keep warm. A regular diet of good food will bolster the body’s defences against the cold.

If you must go out in very cold weather, make sure that your extremities (head, hands and feet) are covered since they will be the first parts of the body to suffer with the cold. Wrap up well, and wear lots of layers to retain body heat. Make sure your clothing is not so tight that it restricts your circulation. Do not drink alcohol or smoke before exposing yourself to the cold, as these affect the blood circulation within the body. If you are caught outside in severe weather, such as a snowstorm, try to find shelter as soon as possible. Do not stay outdoors overnight in bad weather without shelter.

When indoors, make sure that the house is adequately heated. Though fuel bills may mount up during winter, scrimping on the heat is a false economy. Children and older people can easily contract hypothermia indoors if rooms are not heated sufficiently. Just because it may not seem particularly cold to you, does not mean that others will not suffer, as everyone reacts differently to being cold.

Is there any financial assistance to prevent hypothermia?

Older people, incapacitated people, carers and certain others may qualify to receive help with paying for heating. There is a 5 fuel allowance payable by the local Social Welfare offices during the winter, and an extra 3 is available in smokeless fuel areas. If you are receiving any social welfare payment, then you should ask your local office on how to apply for the fuel allowance, which is paid between October and April.

If you are receiving a state pension, you may also qualify to receive free electricity or gas under a social welfare scheme. The Free Electricity Scheme allows for 1,500 free units of electricity, and the Free Bottled Gas scheme provides 14 vouchers which can be exchanged for a bottle of gas. There is also a Free Natural Gas Scheme. For more information on these entitlements, contact your local Social Welfare office.

What should I do if I discover someone with hypothermia?

Wintry weather is especially hard on older people, and it is always worthwhile to check with older relatives and neighbours from time to time, to ensure that they are comfortable during the cold months. If you do come across someone who is experiencing hypothermia, obtain medical assistance immediately. It can be a dangerous shock to the system if you try to warm them up yourself without medical supervision.

If the person with suspected hypothermia is outside, try to get them indoors, to a place at room temperature, and cover them in blankets to slowly bring their temperature up. If they are wet, remove their wet clothing and dress them in dry clothes. If they are conscious and can swallow, give them warm (not hot), sweet, weak tea to drink.

Do not give a hypothermic person alcohol to drink, and do not use a direct source of heat, like a hot water bottle or a heater, to warm them. People with hypothermia are at risk of having a heart attack, so they must be handled gently.

If you cannot get them indoors, cover their head and neck area, and place something underneath them to insulate them from cold ground. Warm them gently, using your own body heat if necessary.

Hypothermia causes the death of many people every winter, and these fatalities could be avoided by taking simple precautions to protect the body from the attacks of cold weather. Hypothermia is a shock that the body can do without, and can be avoided by eating well, wrapping up warmly, and heating your environment properly.

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