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Treating Hypothermia in the Field

Treating Hypothermia in the Field
In our last post on hypothermia, we discussed several methods to avoid the condition.  However, sometimes bad things happen, despite the best of intentions, and you have to deal with the consequences.  How then do we treat hypothermia in the field?

Picture of a bright red cross or first aid symbol on a white background created by Cramer Imaging
Mild hypothermia can be easily treated in the field.  More serious cases require pouring heat in through as many channels as possible.  This can require heated intravenous fluids or even a full heart bypass and the individual's blood is circulated through a warmer before it is returned to the body.

This is more than a bit beyond what the average layperson can handle in the field and even beyond the capabilities of some hospitals.

In this article, we will look at ways someone like you or I can treat mild to moderate hypothermia in the field or at least help with more serious cases until proper medical care can be obtained.

Signs of Hypothermia


Photograph of a cold and shivering man photograph in Pocatello, Bannock, Idaho created by Cramer Imaging
  • Uncontrollable Shivering.  Some shivering can be normal. Shivering is effectively physical activity and warms you up.

    I can and have even forced a shiver by tensing my muscles to produce what is known as a fatigue tremor.  It was effective at warming me up when I was just cool enough to be uncomfortable.

    Uncontrollable and severe shivering on the other hand is a problem.

  • Beginning signs of disorientation.  While individuals in the early stages of hypothermia are relatively alert, they may begin to show signs of disorientation, apathy or irritation.  They may even deny having the symptoms of hypothermia.

    If they seem disoriented trust your own observations and not the individual's opinion.  If his brain isn't working right he's not going to be acting correctly.

    In later stages, a person can become entirely irrational and will often try to completely remove his or her clothing.  This should be prevented if at all possible.  The victim may also appear or act drunk or otherwise impaired.  Do your best to prevent him or her from endangering themselves or others.

  • Tiredness, drowsiness, or lethargy can accompany hypothermia and a victim may insist on being allowed to sleep. In late stages, a victim may wish to be left alone and be allowed to sleep

Treatment of Hypothermia


Early stages of hypothermia are simple to treat.  Help the person warm up.  If it is a very minor case, the body will often take care of it.  Simply remove any wet clothing and get the person under a blanket.  Their body heat will do the rest.

Photograph of wet clothes including pants, socks, and shirt in Pocatello, Bannock, Idaho created by Cramer Imaging
Wet clothes will absorb what heat the body creates in order to evaporate the water.  This is just fine for summer but can be deadly in the winter.
Later stages take a bit more effort.  You need to warm the person up through whatever means you can.  Very late stages often will require warming the blood and the air going into the lungs.

As some hospitals aren't equipped for the most severe cases of hypothermia, you aren't going to be ready for it in the field.  However, even for the most severe cases, you can take some action that could keep a victim alive until a hospital can take more drastic action.

If the situation is still fairly mild, getting the individual someplace warm will often be sufficient.  Still, make sure to remove any wet clothing and get him dry, but also warm air will help.  A place like a car with the heater running, near a fire, or anywhere else you can warm someone up should suffice.

Photograph of a sedan style grey car parked on snow in Pocatello, Bannock, Idaho by Cramer Imaging
A car heater is a good and easily accessible heat source to warm up a hypothermia victim in the field.
If it's a little more severe case of hypothermia you are dealing with, the above may not be enough.  Many experts suggest hot water bottles against the skin to warm someone up.  This may help too but, if you're like me, you don't take that many hot water bottles with you regularly.  You still have the problem of heating up the water too.

Though the most recent printing of the Boy Scout Handbook doesn't have it, I was taught as a youth to strip the person and put them in a sleeping bag and then strip yourself and get in too.  You're a pretty big hot water bottle and can help warm the victim up fairly well.

Photograph of a colorful Christmas-themed mug of hot chocolate with a spoon by Cramer Imaging
Others have suggested placing a hypothermia victim in warm water: around 100 degrees.  Again, this might work if you're near home or similar and can get to a bathtub or hot tub but, I for one, don't carry a bathtub and 100 gallons of warm water around with me in the field.

Hot liquids are often recommended.  These can help greatly and can do some limited warming internally while the victim is being warmed externally as well.

Hot soup, coffee, or other warm beverage can easily be brought in a good thermos and used in an emergency.   Even hot water will work.

The only advantage that coffee, soup, or other drinks have over water is flavor and they may be easier to convince someone to drink.

If the hypothermia has progressed far enough, none of these actions will fix the problem and you should seek out professional medical care at the earliest possible opportunity.  However, in doing what you can to keep the hypothermia victim from getting worse may just save his life.