Hypothermia Management

It is important to understand the nature and treatment of hypothermia, because in severe conditions searchers as well as lost people will be at risk. Hypothermia is a lowering of the body’s core temperature. It can result in death and can occur as a result of:

  • Inadequate protection from a cold environment, especially when combined with altitude, wind, wetness, lack of food and physical exhaustion
  • Immobilisation and exposure to cold, especially in the unconscious, the elderly, young children and the injured
  • Immersion in cold water.

Prevention

  • Adequate protection from cold, wind and wet
  • Regular intake of food and drink (NON- alcoholic)
  • Sound planning, training, and experienced leadership.

Recognition

The initial signs and symptoms may be vague, and the casualty will refuse to recognise the danger of the situation. As body temperature falls, mental and physical performance also fall. One or more of the following signs should alert others to the onset of hypothermia:

  • stumbling
  • lagging behind
  • shivering
  • careless about protecting from cold
  • unusual or irrational behaviour
  • poor judgement
  • lack of coordination
  • apathy
  • exhaustion
  • slurred speech
  • confusion
  • loss of consciousness in whole or part

The person will feel cold to touch and usually look pale.

Treatment

Prevention of further body cooling, plus the basic principles of first aid and resuscitation:

  • STOP immediately.
  • Protect the casualty from wind and water
  • Make or take shelter.
  • Put on extra clothing including waterproofs, cover the head.
  • Insulate from the cold ground, especially the head.
  • Place the casualty in large plastic rubbish bag or similar up to the armpits – arms and face uncovered, mouth/nose/eyes visible. A second bag can then be placed over the head and shoulders with an opening for the face.
  • Cover the casualty with warm and waterproof material.
  • Huddle together, never leave the casualty alone.
  • Provided the casualty is conscious, offer easily digestible food and drink, preferably warmed, but not hot.
  • Ensure all group members put on extra clothing for warmth.
  • Send for medical assistance if possible.
  • Treat the casualty very gently at all times.
  • The natural tendency to “press on to shelter” must be avoided. Regrouping on the spot and immediate commencement of treatment is more important than rapid evacuation from the area.

Important precautions:

  • No removal of wet clothing – leave it on and use plastic bag method.
  • No alcohol, cigarettes, hot drinks, strong coffee
  • No massaging or rubbing
  • No exercise
  • No fire nearby (no radiant heat)
  • It is important to avoid stimulating the casualty’s peripheral blood circulation. This can lower core temperature by allowing warm core blood to flow through cold peripheral tissue.

In conditions where one group member succumbs to hypothermia, it is likely that others are at risk too. All members should take precautions and monitor each other while treating the casualty.

2003 Edition