With the polar vortex descending down well into the lower fifty, officials are strongly urging caution for anyone who must venture out. Over 1,000 deaths are attributed annually in this country to overexposure to cold air or water.
Hypothermia, a condition in which the body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees, is the primary cause of death for outdoor recreationists. It is also an often unrecognized killer of infants and the elderly, although the most frequent victims are homeless people, alcoholics and drug addicts.
If you are planning an outing, always check the weather report with attention to the wind chill and to any travel advisories. Dress appropriately in loose layers that trap body heat but avoid cotton which traps moisture and becomes wet. Wool and polypropylene garments are the best inner layers for capturing heat and allowing moisture to escape. Your outer layer should be wind-resistant and waterproof. Wear a hat and neck covering, and when conditions are as brutal as we are experiencing this week, cover your face with a scarf or mask. Mittens will keep your hands warmer than gloves.
Skiers, hikers and fishermen are among those most at risk, even in relatively mild weather — if their clothes get wet, if there’s a brisk breeze, if they are tired and hungry or if they have been drinking alcohol. And hypothermia can occur in a few hours in water as warm as 60 or 70 degrees.
The first sign of hypothermia is usually violent shivering and cold and pale skin. As body temperature drops, coordination and mental activity are affected. Other common symptoms of hypothermia are confusion or sleepiness; slowed, slurred speech; shallow breathing; weak pulse; stiffness of the arms or legs; poor control of body movements; and slowed reactions.
A person suffering from hypothermia must be gradually rewarmed, essentially from the inside out. If possible, call immediately for emergency medical assistance. Remove the victim’s wet or cold clothing and wrap the person in layers of dry, warm clothes or blankets. Apply warm (but not hot) compresses to the neck, chest wall and groin area.