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When I recognize the symptoms of hypothermia, how should I treat it? And what are the dangers if the symptoms are ignored?

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Treatment differs for different stages of hypothermia. Are you asking about 1st stage/mild hypothermia (fine motor shivering, "umbles",...), severe (no shivering, unresponsive,...) or the spectrum in between? Hypothermia is a process and the further it progresses the harder it is to overcome, especially in backcountry scenarios. –  manoftheson Jan 20 '13 at 2:16
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Also I highly recommend taking a class in Wilderness First Aid or higher. It will better prepare you to deal with topics like these. This question deals with some programs to consider. –  manoftheson Jan 20 '13 at 2:27

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

When treating mild to medium hypothermia, you should:

  • Stop. Create a heat source, such as a fire and get the patient warm.
  • take wet clothing off. The best way to do this if you don't have other clothes to change into, is to take off your underwear/under layers and dry those first, then when those layers are dry, swap them out.
  • Eat calories, i.e. carbohydrates like candy, sugar, things that will speed up your metabolism and get you warm. Quick burning energy will help raise the internal temperature of the patient.

Main thing is to stop and get the patient warm. Drink hot fluids, start a fire, etc.

Severe hypothermia should be treated medically if at all possible. It is suggested that the best/only way to warm a person is for two people, one on either side of the person, to get in a sleeping bag and warm the person with their body heat (i.e. gradually). Do not administer hot fluids or attempt to warm in any other way...Do not make the patient move too much, or you will send the body into shock.

As for dangers, if you ignore hypothermia long enough, the person can go into shock, become semi-conscious, unconscious, etc. So it is very serious and should be treated right away.

Read more: Hypothermia Treatment

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It is not standard practice to buddy up in a bag - this is far less effective than you might think. The preferred practice is a hypo-wrap where you include hot water bottles in vital areas. And just to be specific, the danger of moving a patient when severely hypothermic is not sending them into shock, but causing a heart attack. Source: Wilderness First Responder for the past 6 years. –  Greg.Ley Feb 27 '12 at 19:00
    
@studiohack - If you read the answer above, then please read this for a professional take on treatment with this method. –  manoftheson Dec 6 '12 at 20:18
    
and by answer I meant the link you reference. –  manoftheson Jan 20 '13 at 2:31
    
This is the proper link. Sorry, didn't know the link was busted. And @Greg.Ley I'm with you. This old practice needs to go. –  manoftheson Mar 11 '13 at 7:50
    
Psychological first aid is also important. I read an accident report in Appalachian Journal (AMC print mag) in which they lost a rescued victim while carrying then out in a litter. They suspected the victim relaxed at the arrival of the rescue party and fell asleep before getting to the hospital. Going to sleep when hypothermic can be deadly. –  orangejewelweed yesterday

Admittedly, my first aid training has lapsed - but the last mountain first aid course I took about 5 years ago made a point of matching the speed of onset.

For example - if a person has fallen into an icy stream, they will have very rapidly cooled. You need to get their core temperature up, fast - the best way to do this is to strip them down out of their wet clothes and dry, and then, while still unclothed (this is not the time to be body shy), into a sleeping bag with someone else.

However, if it is a result of long-term exposure, then you can't just rapidly heat them up (no matter how bad it may seem). If they haven't gone too far (teeth are still chattering, they're still shivering) - extra layers and, a hot, sweet drink can help. Keep them moving.

If they are not shivering anymore, they're pretty much heading into hypothermic shock - at that point, get them into a sleeping bag with another warm body. You should strip outer layers, but t-shirts and shorts can be left on.

If you're in a large enough group and you have to stop, send a party for help.

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As mentioned above it is not wise to do the buddy-sleeping bag technique. There are more effective and safe ways to take care of hypothermic patients of differing intensity. This is not advised! –  manoftheson Dec 1 '12 at 7:47

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