It’s easier to prevent hypothermia than to treat it outdoors

  • By Sharon Wootton / Special to The Herald
  • Friday, February 17, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

I now have a greater appreciation for bald men, hypothermia and fleece hats.

Late last fall, chemotherapy sessions left me bald, just in time for winter weather. Technically, I was basically bald before chemotherapy because of a head-shaving ceremony the night before it started. (I didn’t think my sense of humor covered hair falling into my Cheerios).

Off it came with visions of Melissa Etheridge’s gutsy performance of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” at the ‘05 Grammy ceremony, bright spotlights shining on her bald head.

Of course, those spotlights generated heat, so there was no chance of hypothermia.

But hypothermia is a dangerous possibility on hikes in cold snaps like we’re having now; during snowriding activities; boating or fishing in chilly weather; or even hiking in the mountains in spring when wind and rain can conspire.

Hypothermia kills several hundred people each year, from lost snowboarders to homeless people.

Experts say 30 to 50 percent of heat loss escapes through our heads, so bald men (and me) have to pay a little extra attention. Animals can add extra fat or hair for protection; humans cannot, so fleece or wool caps are just the ticket.

When it’s cold, your body works overtime to regulate your core temperature to about 98.6 degrees. When it drops to 95 or below, you have hypothermia. Unchecked, it will lead to unconsciousness, then cardiac or respiratory failures and death.

Warning signs include slurred speech, cold and pale skin, shivering, stumbling and grumbling, disorientation, slow thinking and lethargy. By the time the body reaches the shivering stage, an effort by the body to create heat, it’s late into the process.

It’s better to prevent hypothermia than to try to treat it, especially when dealing with children, who lose body heat faster than adults.

Here are tips from the Mayo Clinic using the acronym COLD:

C: Cover your head by wearing a hat or other covering to prevent body heat from escaping through your head, face and neck. Mittens allow your fingers to stay closer together and generate heat.

O: Overexertion should be avoided because sweating can lower your core body temperature.

L: Layer loose-fitting, lightweight clothing and an outer layer of water-repellent material. Wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers hold more heat in than cotton layers. Loose-fitting clothing helps circulation.

D: Dry is the key. Pay close attention to places where snow can enter clothing or boots.

Whether on a rainy hike or snowboarding, water absorbs body heat faster than air, so wet clothes will cause body temperatures to drop rapidly.

But what if you’re with someone who is hypothermic and a doctor is not nearby?

* Gently move the person out of the cold, wet or wind, preferably into a dry, sheltered area, such as a tent, rock overhang or cave, whatever is handy. The gentle approach is necessary because, in severe cases of hypothermia, jarring can cause the heart to beat irregularly.

* Conserve heat; put a blanket, a coat, a backpack, or even branches between the body and the ground; if there’s a sleeping bag, the person should get in.

* Take off the wet clothes and replace with dry ones, especially a dry hat.

* Give warm (not hot) beverages, but no alcohol; it causes blood vessels to expand so the body loses heat faster. Something with sugar is good, but avoid caffeine. Cold fluids are better than no fluids.

Other approaches are not as clear as you might think. For instance, a hypothermic person needs to be handled gently so don’t massage the body. Rubbing the extremities will increase circulation but it moves heat away from the core where it’s needed the most.

If hypothermia is extreme, go for help, but the trick is to prevent it. Start with a fleece cap, especially if you’re bald (even temporarily).

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or

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