Hypothermia officially occurs when a person’s core body temperature drops below 35°C (95°F), but you know you are on the way if you have been exposed to extreme cold or a cold, damp environment for a prolonged period – or in a situation of high wind chill and high humidity, or any scenario where more heat is lost than your body can generate.
Because the signs and symptoms of hypothermia usually develop slowly and most casualties experience a gradual loss of both mental acuity and physical ability as the symptoms progress, they may not even be aware that they need emergency medical treatment.
Signs include fatigue, cold and pale skin, shivering (mild to violent), slurred speech and respiratory distress or abnormally slow breathing, confusion (including memory loss), loss of coordination and loss of consciousness. In a garden or farming context, working in the winter in wet or inadequate clothing, or falling into a pond or other cold water exposure, for example, can trigger hypothermia. Foragers and ramblers are prone of not correctly dressed and protected from extremes
First response – Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition and should always be treated as a medical emergency. It’s when the shivering stops that you need to really worry as this indicates that circulation is receding and the heart is slowing. Time is of the essence. Call for help and call the emergency services. Move yourself or the casualty out of the cold. If moving him or her is not possible, add layers to insulate the casualty from further heat loss. If in wet clothes, remove what you can (within socially acceptable limits) and replace with dry clothes or wrap in dry fabric.
If the casualty becomes unconscious, layer the ground beneath him or her with a jacket or blanket and place the person into the recovery position. If he or she is not breathing and you cannot detect a pulse, commence CPR until an ambulance arrives.
Top tip – Always warm the casualty from the core/centre of the body (chest, head, neck and groin). Heat applied to the extremities (arms and legs) only forces cold blood back towards the heart and lungs, which will cause the core body temperature to drop even further – this is potentially fatal. Do not attempt to massage or rub the person vigorously if you suspect frostbite or other cold or non-cold related injuries.