Experts discuss risks, prevention of hypothermia

<p>Courtesy of Milosz Pierwola | Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when the human body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Dropping below 82 degrees is “severe.”</p>

Courtesy of Milosz Pierwola | Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when the human body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Dropping below 82 degrees is “severe.”

Last weekend, many daring people braved the icy waters of the Atlantic for the New Jersey Polar Bear Plunge and, despite the unusually temperate weather, staying warm remained a significant safety issue.

Prolonged exposure to colder temperatures increases the risk for hypothermia, especially with aquatic activities, which is why it is important to prevent, recognize and treat it, said Deborah Miller, the scuba coordinator at the Werblin Recreation Center on Busch Campus.

“Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia happens any time the core body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit,” Miller said. “Severe hypothermia could result in core temperatures even lower, usually 82 degrees or lower.”

Since Polar Bear Plunge participants do not wear thermal protection suits that scuba divers wear, even brief exposure to cold water makes them subject to severe hypothermia, she said.

“In tropical locations where the water temperature may be 84-86 degrees Fahrenheit, the divers still need some kind of protection, especially if it is a longer dive," she said. "The body loses heat 20 or 25 percent faster (in water) than it does in air.”

Even though the plunge is open to everyone, Miller said some individuals are more prone to becoming hypothermic.

Children and older adults are more affected by extreme temperatures and are more susceptible to hypothermia, said Diane Gillooly, an advanced practice nurse and assistant clinical professor in the School of Nursing.

“Kids could ignore the cold because they are having fun,” she said. “You also have to watch the elderly population. With age, they lose the ability to regulate their temperature, so their temperatures drop faster.”

Older adults may also have other medical conditions that increase their risk for hypothermia. For example, while brain trauma may hinder body temperature regulation, dementia may lead someone to believe he is on a sunny beach when the weather is actually below freezing, she said.

Alcohol also affects the adaptive response to cold by impairing the shivering reflex, which is how the body warms itself. In addition to reducing the ability to think clearly, alcohol dilates blood vessels, making a person feel warm even when their temperature is low, she said.

Milosz Pierwola, a professional adventurer, world explorer and Rutgers alumnus, completed a polar expedition after training across Lake Winnipeg a few years ago.

“Some people might want to have a couple of drinks before Polar Bear Plunge, (but) alcohol is something you have to avoid (along with) nicotine and caffeine,” Pierwola said.

Besides the actual loss of core temperature from being in cold water, there are a number of issues that influence and are influenced by hypothermia, he said.

“When you hit the water, you receive a shock to your system. The number one thing you need to know, (and) this is important, do not dunk your head under the water,” he said.

The body’s involuntary reaction to cold water is to gasp for air, as seen in the popular Ice Bucket Challenge videos, he said. If a person gasps underwater, water can enter the lungs and put him or her at risk of drowning and getting hypothermia.

Shock also affects how blood gets pumped around the body. The body prioritizes blood flow to the organs essential for survival, such as the heart, lungs or brain while the less essential fingers and toes receive less blood, he said.

Underwater obstacles are also safety concerns. Normally the body would feel pain if someone twisted their ankle or stepped on rocks, but the cold water may numb his or her feet and make him or her unaware of injury, he said.

Since the complications of hypothermia are so serious, a good way to remember signs of developing hypothermia is the phrase “Stumble, Mumble and Grumble,” he said.

“Stumble" refers to the decreased dexterity people experience as muscles are impacted, Pierwola said.

"Muscles cease being able to work as efficiently as they normally do. You actually lose strength,” he said. “Even the weight of wet clothes makes it too heavy for them to lift themselves out of the water.”

He said people may trip more often or have difficulty putting on gloves or operating zippers and buttons. Decreased strength also affects the facial muscles, which become so cold that the person struggles to form words and mumbles, he said.

The "Grumble" part of the phrase is representative of the moodiness associated with hypothermia.

“You can actually tell somebody is becoming hypothermic because they’re moody. They get a little bit sad, agitated or angry,” he said.

Overall, Gillooly said prevention of hypothermia is preferable to trying to reverse it.

There are simple actions a person can do to warm up, including changing into dry clothes or tightly wrapping up in warm blankets. Monitoring mental status, breathing and heart rate for fatal arrhythmias is also important, Miller said.

“My personal recommendation is to boil hot tea, sweeten it with honey or sugar, and put it into a Nalgene or a plastic bottle,” Pierwola said. “Take that bottle of tea and put it right up against your chest — right where your heart is. Slowly sip it as well.”

Drinking a hot sweetened beverage boosts energy levels from the calories and heats you from the inside out, said Pierwola. Warming the chest warms the blood that passes through the heart, and that warm blood increases core temperature as it gets pumped all over the body.

“Your body is not a democracy. When it feels like it’s in danger, it’s going to respond appropriately …sacrificing (parts of) itself to keep itself alive,” Pierwola said.


Allison Bautista is a School of Nursing junior. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @allisontargum for more.

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