The Dangers of Hypothermia in the Water

Hypothermia is a sustained drop in body temperature that happens when your body is exposed to cold temperatures for long periods of time. Your body produces heat, but if you are losing heat faster than your body can produce it, your body's core temperature will decrease. If your body temperature drops significantly, it could affect your brain function, making you unable to move and get yourself out of the situation that's causing you to have hypothermia.

If you travel on yachts often, you should be aware that hypothermia can occur at warmer temperatures if you're in the water. Outside of the water, hypothermia usually happens at freezing temperatures below 30°F. In the water, you could become hypothermic at a temperature of 40°F.

Causes

Prolonged exposure to frigid water or wintry weather is the primary cause of hypothermia. But even wearing summer clothes on a chilly day can lead to hypothermia. Wearing wet clothes and being unable to change out of them can also give you hypothermia. Spending a night without heat in a cold house or spending a long time in excessive air conditioning are additional potential causes of hypothermia. Your body can lose heat in one of three ways: from wind chill, which whips away the warm air layer that covers your skin; due to natural heat loss as your body radiates heat; and through direct contact with a cold surface that leeches heat from the body. Heat loss from direct contact happens fastest in water because water is a natural conductor.

Signs and Symptoms

The first sign of hypothermia is shivering. Shivering is your body's way of generating heat through motion to replace the heat that's being lost. You may also start to feel very tired and lethargic; even if you want to move, you can't. Your hands may feel numb and uncoordinated. In the later stages of hypothermia, you experience memory loss and confusion. However, the signs of hypothermia are different in babies: A baby with hypothermia will have very red skin and will be less active than usual.

Prevention

It's important to dress appropriately for the weather by checking the forecast before leaving the house and wearing a warm coat, hat, and gloves in cold weather. Keep the temperature in your home no lower than 65°F, especially on winter nights. Before heading out on your yacht, pack an extra change of dry clothes to change into if you get wet. Your emergency kit should also have life jackets and a first aid kit. Don't drink caffeinated drinks in cold weather; caffeine enlarges your veins and makes your temperature drop faster. Bring a buddy along for outdoor winter activities so someone is there to help you if hypothermia makes you become confused and lose your judgment. And if you fall into water or get wet from playing in the snow, remove wet clothing and put on dry clothing as soon as possible.

Management/Treatment

If you believe that someone has hypothermia, the first thing you should do is to call 911. If they cannot reverse the hypothermia using passive warming, the affected individual may have to go to the hospital for blood warming. The blood warming process uses a dialysis machine to warm the blood and transfer it back to the body. Doctors may also warm up the body using intravenous fluids. An oxygen mask with humidified oxygen can also help to warm the patient.

First Aid

The most urgent matter when dealing with a hypothermic person is to remove them from the cold situation. If the person is outside, bring them indoors. Remove wet clothing, then wrap the person in a blanket or dress them in warm clothing. Make sure to cover the person's head with a hat or a scarf, only exposing the face. Avoid warming the person's arms or legs with compresses because doing so could cause a fatal event in which cold blood is sent directly to the heart. Instead, use warm towels or compresses on the person's chest and/or neck to drive up body temperature. Drinking warm beverages, like decaffeinated tea or hot chocolate, also helps.

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