All too often we hear “we live in the tropics, so hypothermia is not an issue for us!”
The simple fact is that it still is a problem and it’s even worse because many people continue to believe that in tropical or even warm climates hypothermia is not a problem if you’re in the water.
In simple terms if the water you’re in or even air that has a lower temperature than your body you can suffer from hypothermia.
Consider your body temperature in normal conditions is around 37°C and you go overboard in water with a temperature of 23°C which is common in warmer climate zones.
Your body will immediately start to adjust to the external (water or air) temperature which means it’s going to drop significantly and…in a short time!
If you’re in the water for even a short time then hypothermia is going to start developing.
Knowing how to identify the symptoms of hypothermia is a vital part of survival at sea and in the preservation of life.
In water with a temperature of 21°C to 26°C the expected time before exhaustion or unconsciousness is between 3 to 12 hours depending on the individual. The expected time of survival is anywhere from 3 hours to indefinite.
We break up the symptoms into two categories…
- Mild hypothermia; and
- Moderate to severe hypothermia
Mild Hypothermia Symptoms
Symptoms for mild hypothermia include:
- Faster breathing
- Trouble speaking
- Slight confusion
- Increased heart rate
Moderate to Severe Hypothermia Symptoms
These symptoms are signs of moderate to severe hypothermia:
- Shivering, although as hypothermia worsens shivering stops
- Clumsiness or lack of coordination
- Slurred speech or mumbling
- Confusion and poor decision making such as trying to remove warm clothes
- Drowsiness or very low energy
- Lack of concern about one’s condition
- Weak pulse
- Slow, shallow breathing
Hypothermia in children
Charter and passenger vessels often have children onboard and anyone operating on these vessels should also be able to identify hypothermia in children. The symptoms include:
- Bright red, cold skin
- Very low energy
- A weak cry
Seek immediate medical attention for anyone who appears to have hypothermia. Until medical help is available, follow these first-aid guidelines for hypothermia.
- Be gentle. When you’re helping a person with hypothermia, handle him or her gently. Limit movements to only those that are necessary. Don’t massage or rub the person. Excessive, vigorous or jarring movements may trigger cardiac arrest.
- Move the person out of the cold. Move the person to a warm, dry location if possible. If you’re unable to move the person out of the cold, shield him or her from the cold and wind as much as possible. Keep him or her in a horizontal position if possible.
- Remove wet clothing. If the person is wearing wet clothing, remove it. Cut away clothing if necessary to avoid excessive movement.
- Cover the person with blankets. Use layers of dry blankets or coats to warm the person. Cover the person’s head, leaving only the face exposed.
- Insulate the person’s body from the cold ground. If you’re outside, lay the person on his or her back on a blanket or other warm surface.
- Monitor breathing. A person with severe hypothermia may appear unconscious, with no apparent signs of a pulse or breathing. If the person’s breathing has stopped or appears dangerously low or shallow, begin CPR immediately if you’re trained.
- Provide warm beverages. If the affected person is alert and able to swallow, provide a warm, sweet, non-alcoholic, noncaffeinated beverage to help warm the body.
- Use warm, dry compresses. Use a first-aid warm compress (a plastic fluid-filled bag that warms up when squeezed) or a makeshift compress of warm water in a plastic bottle or a dryer-warmed towel. Apply a compress only to the neck, chest wall or groin.
Don’t apply a warm compress to the arms or legs. Heat applied to the arms and legs forces cold blood back toward the heart, lungs and brain, causing the core body temperature to drop. This can be fatal.
- Don’t apply direct heat. Don’t use hot water, a heating pad or a heating lamp to warm the person. The extreme heat can damage the skin or, even worse, cause irregular heartbeats so severe that they can cause the heart to stop.
If you don’t know the signs of hypothermia developing you may be witnessing death in the making because hypothermia can kill in 6 minutes!
Our recommendation is to not only know but also understand the signs of hypothermia and how to deal with anyone suffering from it.
Remember hypothermia increases blood to the brain and alters your judgement so…be on guard at all times.
Hypothermia is not limited to being in the water, it can be an issue for those working in cold climates on deck or ashore. It can even impact people in freezer rooms if not wearing the appropriate PPE!
Our best tip is to ensure you wear the right clothing and have the appropriate PPE for the conditions you are working in!