Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition that can occur if a person gets too cold. (The word literally means “low [body] temperature.”) Here’s how to recognise it, and what to do if you’re with somebody who is showing symptoms.
Know who is at risk
While hypothermia can happen to anybody, the CDC says the people most at risk include older adults with inadequate clothing or heating, babies who sleep in cold rooms, people who spend a lot of time outdoors in cold conditions, and people who use alcohol or drugs that can affect the body’s temperature regulation.
Recognise the symptoms
Signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion and fumbling hands, none of which may seem unusual at first for somebody who is out in the cold. But they can be signs of hypothermia, as can confusion, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. If somebody has been using alcohol, don’t just assume they’re drunk; consider that they might have hypothermia. Babies experiencing hypothermia may be lethargic and have cold, bright red skin.
Seek medical help
Hypothermia is a medical emergency, so call 000 if possible. If you have a thermometer, note that a person with hypothermia will have a body temperature below 35 degrees Celsius.
If the person falls unconscious or appears not to have a pulse, begin CPR immediately. (This is an emergency and you should also have someone call 911 and you should also try to warm them up as outlined below.) Continue CPR until help arrives or until the person begins responding.
Warm the person carefully
If you can’t get the person medical attention right away, or if you have to wait a while, here’s what the CDC suggests doing:
Bring the person into a warm place if possible (indoors or in the most sheltered area you can find) and remove any wet clothing. (People can have hypothermia in cold, wet clothing even if the weather is only a little bit chilly.)
Gently warm up the core of the person’s body, which includes their head and torso. Electric blankets can help, or skin-to-skin contact under dry blankets. Warm drinks like tea can help to warm the person from the inside, but never attempt to give a drink to an unconscious person.
Once the person’s body temperature is back to normal, get them into dry clothes or blankets and seek medical attention as soon as you can.
A person with hypothermia might also have frostbite, which typically affects the extremities. Of the two, hypothermia is the more important medical issue, so take care of that before worrying about their fingers and toes.