Although hypothermia is not often considered one of the main dangers of recreational boating, the temperature of the water on even a balmy day can be enough to induce the condition. Moreover, you do not have to get into the water to be susceptible to hypothermia; every year, many boaters will develop the condition because of cold wind and air temperature.
For these reasons, it is important that you know the warning signs, symptoms, and basic treatment for hypothermia before you go out on the water. Hypothermia is essentially a decrease in the body temperature which results in reduced circulation and muscle strength. When it senses extreme cold, the body tends to concentrate the blood in the most vital areas: the internal organs. This is why the first areas to display signs of frostbite or hypothermia are usually the fingers and toes. Because the blood flow is reduced, the muscles are not as ready to perform work. Therefore, individuals who are suffering from even mild hypothermia should not exert themselves or make any sudden movements, as the violent strain on the heart can lead to cardiac arrest.
Whenever hypothermia is suspected, the individual should be removed from the cold environment as soon as possible. If the individual is wet, he or she should be dried off immediately, and any wet clothing should be removed. Once the individual has been transported to a warmer location, heat should be applied to the head, shoulders, neck, sides, chest, and abdomen. In other words, primary heating efforts should concentrate on the head and trunk. Once the body’s core is warm enough, blood will start to flow to the extremities in greater measure. The best position for the victim during this procedure is supine (lying on his or her back).
The particular means by which the individual’s body is reheated may vary. If warm water is available, then moistened towels may be placed on the trunk and neck. Be sure to change these towels whenever they begin to lose their heat. If a hot water bottle is available, this can be used in different places on the body as the individual lies under a blanket. A warm bath or shower is also a good way to restore heat to the body, although it is best not to let the temperature of the water exceed 110 degrees. In extreme circumstances, in which no other source of heat is available, it may be necessary to apply body heat by lying directly next to or on top of the individual, being sure not to crush him or her.
If hypothermia becomes severe, the victim may lose consciousness. This is in part the body’s effort to conserve heat by shutting down any non-essential processes. If this occurs, simply continue the reheating process as normal, but monitor the individual’s breathing and pulse closely. If the individual is conscious but is having a difficult time breathing, you may assist with mouth-to-mouth breathing. Often, the warm air from another person is easier for a hypothermic individual to inhale and exhale.
There are a few things that should never be done during the care of a hypothermic individual. For one thing, never rub areas of the body that have become frozen. Any vigorous pressure applied to areas of the body that are lacking blood can be dangerous. Also, never wrap the individual in anything that is not heated. In other words, do not place the victim in a situation in which the only source of warmth is his or her own body heat. Blankets should be laid across the victim, and sleeping bags should only be used when they are accompanied by some source of heat. This source of heat can be a hot water bottle, an electric blanket, or simply the heat of an indoor location. Finally, never give alcohol to a hypothermic individual. Despite the popular belief that alcohol increases warmth and circulation, it in fact depresses the central nervous system and leads to decreased circulation. Alcohol may also amplify the confusion and disorientation characteristic of extreme hypothermia.
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