How to Save Lives in the Cold: Lifesaving Tips from the Experts

When temperatures drop, the risk of hypothermia – a condition where the body’s core temperature falls below 35 degrees Celsius – increases. This can have serious, even fatal consequences. However, understanding cold and its effects on the body can also be key to saving lives. Øystein Wiggen and Sigurd Mydske, respectively a researcher and a doctor at Sintef, share their expertise on the best approaches to deal with hypothermia.

Understanding the Danger of Cold

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius, a critical threshold that can lead to severe health issues. “A person is considered hypothermic when the core temperature drops below this mark. The core temperature is precisely the temperature of the blood in the right ventricle of the heart,” Wiggen explains.

Why Cold is Dangerous

Severe cooling is hazardous for several reasons. For starters, blood platelets do not function normally when the body is cold, making it difficult to stop bleeding, both externally and internally. Furthermore, cold itself is harmful. Keeping injured individuals warm is among the most crucial steps following an accident.

“A drop in core temperature from 36 to 35 degrees can have severe consequences. Body temperature helps regulate the speed of all chemical processes in the body. When we are cooled, everything slows down, impairing the function of vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and brain, and weakening the blood’s ability to clot,” Mydske points out.

The Body’s Response to Cooling

The body initiates mechanisms to prevent severe cooling. This includes reducing blood flow to peripheral parts of the body and increasing it to internal organs. “The most critical parts of the body remain warm and receive oxygen and nutrients, which is why we first feel cold in our nose, hands, and feet,” Wiggen states.

Another response is shivering, which increases metabolism and heat production. “Shivering itself isn’t dangerous. It’s a sign that the body is doing its job. The danger is when a person has become so cold that they stop shivering,” Mydske emphasizes.

Lifesaving Tips

If you find yourself or someone else suffering from hypothermia, there are several key steps to take:

  • Isolate from the cold: Move the person away from the cold surface, using a backpack or sleeping pad for insulation.
  • Use a vapor barrier: Wrap the person in a tight-fitting bag to prevent moisture loss from the body. Evaporation cools, so stopping this process is crucial.
  • Provide active warmth: Always apply heat to the person, possibly with heating blankets. Despite uncertainties about its exact effects, the goal is to return the body to its normal warm state.

In emergencies, even simple items like garbage bags can make a difference by stopping evaporative heat loss, creating a significant effect on temperature.

Understanding Cold’s Paradoxical Benefit

In some cases, cold can paradoxically increase survival chances, especially in situations like drowning in cold water. When the body cools, everything slows down, allowing the brain to withstand longer periods without oxygen before it becomes critical.

The Road Ahead

While much is known about treating hypothermia, the search for the optimal method of pre-hospital warming of patients continues. Advances in equipment for active warming and the ability to accurately measure body temperature in the field are areas of ongoing research.

Understanding the risks and proper responses to hypothermia is essential, especially in cold environments. By following the expert advice of Wiggen and Mydske, you can be better prepared to handle these life-threatening situations. Remember, in the face of cold-induced emergencies, knowledge, preparation, and quick action can save lives.


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