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January 26, 2014

Learn to deal with hypothermia, frostbite

In the wake of the recent death by hypothermia of a 31-year-old Australian soldier visiting the Adirondacks, apparently a suicide, I’ve received a number of inquiries about just what hypothermia is and about the dangers and symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite. Most were from concerned parents. 

My initial response is to tell them that very few northern New Yorkers believe that cold weather is a reason to stay indoors. And for North Country kids, winter is fun. It’s the season of snowmen, snowballs, snow forts, snow sculptures, sledding, tobogganing, tubing and ice skating. There’s also snowmobiling, snowshoeing, snowboarding, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, dog sledding, ice fishing, ice climbing, winter hiking, winter camping and winter-carnival parades.

We’re not strangers to the cold. Many of us work outdoors or have friends or neighbors who work outdoors during the winter on construction or logging crews or as farmers, truckers, police and firefighters. Others may travel considerable distances to work. All these situations leave people vulnerable.

The danger of cold-related injuries is compounded if you have poor circulation, if you are tired or if you’ve been drinking. Age, physical condition, smoking and the use of certain medications are also factors.

To understand cold injuries, we must first recognize that the body’s ability to generate heat and prevent heat loss is limited. Core temperature (97.7 to 99.5 F) is maintained by the hypothalamus in the brain, which makes physiological adjustments in response to temperature receptors in the body’s shell. Cold injury occurs when the body’s ability to thermo-regulate becomes compromised. 

Essentially, hypothermia is injury to the body’s core, frostbite to the shell. They often occur together.

Hypothermia occurs when the body is losing heat faster than it can generate it. Shivering is often the first sign. Slow or slurred speech, lethargy and drowsiness may follow. As condition worsens, victims will often become disorientated or incoherent. Exhaustion will set in. Breathing will become reduced and heart rate will be lowered. In severe cases, the sufferer may lapse into a coma and die. Sweating or getting wet can increase risk.

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