Are you or someone you love at risk for hypothermia?
In New England, we often have days that can be described as a winter wonderland, but cold weather brings risks as well as beauty.
Patients who died of hypothermia were responsible for 94 percent of temperature-related deaths, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago.
“That study was looking at folks in Illinois, specifically, and the Illinois weather patterns are fairly similar to New England weather patterns,” said Michael J. Rest, MD, a specialist in emergency medicine who practices at Falmouth Hospital and the Stoneman Urgent Care Center in Sandwich. “It shows how dangerous cold weather can be.”
Hot-weather ailments, including heat stroke and heat exhaustion, are more treatable than hypothermia, he said.
“Typically, heat exhaustion is related to an acute weather event or exertional activity on a particularly hot day. It's usually a fairly reversible process if you catch it before it gets out of hand. Whereas hypothermia can spiral out of control quickly, and so it's harder to turn around.”
People with low body weight are at higher risk of hypothermia because they have less insulating fat and fewer calories available to burn to get their temperature back up, he said.
“Elderly and frail folks are in the high-risk category, and then on the flip side, very young kids, who have a large body surface area, as well as those who have underlying, significant health issues.”
The first warning signs of hypothermia are chattering teeth and shivering. Next, your pulse will slow and weaken, your breathing will slow down, and you’ll begin to display confusion, lack of coordination, irritability, confusion and sleepiness.
“The very elderly or the very young have a hard time communicating these changes, so you've got to watch out for your family members,” Dr. Rest said.
The solution is to warm up. Changing from wet or damp clothing to dry clothing is crucial. Other steps include moving into a warmer environment, drinking something warm or eating something warm.
Those with mild hypothermia may need a trip to an Urgent Care Center. Cape Cod Healthcare, which operates four such centers across Cape Cod, will open another in Orleans in early 2022 at the site of the former Lobster Claw Restaurant on Route 6A. The facility will be part of a new, multi-use medical building that will also offer primary and specialty care offices.
What to Do
If you see that someone else is showing advanced stages of hypothermia, you should call 9-1-1 for emergency help.
“The problem with hypothermia is the internal cells in your body stop working and you can go into a deadly arrhythmia,” Dr. Rest said. “As long as the patient arrives at the ER before they get to that point, it's almost always reversible.”
He treats cases of hypothermia year-round.
“We see it even in the middle of the summer due to the cold ocean water,” he said. “But in the wintertime, we see it most frequently. Patients tend to be elderly or homeless or people who are outdoors for long periods of time.”
Don’t fall for the myth that drinking alcohol will help keep you warm.
“It actually does exactly the opposite,” he said. “Alcohol will cause the blood to rush to the surface of the skin, so people get a sensation that they feel warmer. The warm blood is moving to the outside and it gives a false sense that you are warming up, when in fact your body is losing heat faster.
“Alcohol, drugs, and certain medications can predispose you to hypothermia because they can affect your mental status and your ability to be aware of how you're feeling.”