It’s summer. The hot sun is beating down and the mercury keeps creeping up, up, up. Chances are, hypothermia — the condition that occurs when the body’s core temperature cools to dangerously low levels — is the furthest thing from your mind right now.
Though summer health warnings are most often about things like UV protection and preventing heat exhaustion or stroke, hypothermia is actually a legitimate summertime concern. In fact, more people die from hypothermia during the summer each year than during the winter.
Contrary to popular belief, the air temperature does not have to be below freezing for hypothermia to occur. Hypothermia strikes anytime weather conditions, including rain, or water temperatures lower a person’s core body temperature below 95° F. Because people are less likely to be prepared for cold conditions during warmer months, summertime exposure to the cold is more likely to turn into a deadly situation.
Most cases of hypothermia, during any season, occur when people are working or playing outdoors. In the summertime, hikers often fall prey to hypothermia because they fail to dress appropriately and plan for changes in the weather. This is especially true for those who set out to hike on mountainous trails. When the weather is hot and clear at the base of a mountain, people mistakenly believe it will also be hot and clear near the top, or will remain so throughout a long day of hiking.
Heading up a long trail on a hot day wearing nothing but a pair of light shorts and a cotton t-shirt may seem like a good idea, but it can take as little as a heavy fog or a cool afternoon rain shower to create a life-threatening situation. Without a waterproof jacket, you can quickly become soaked through by cold rain or mist and get chilled. Because natural fabrics, like cotton, take a long time to dry, it can take hours to warm up — sometimes hours too long. There have even been reports of unexpected snowstorms claiming hikers’ lives in late spring and early summer.
Hypothermia is also a risk for boaters for the same reason. It takes much longer for water temperatures to rise than the air temperature, which means lakes and rivers can still be very cold during the heat of summer. A boater who falls into cold water could be in serious danger if he or she is unable to dry off quickly enough.
Hypothermia comes on subtly, and can sometimes be difficult to recognize. When the body’s core temperature drops below 95°, it begins reducing bloodflow to the extremities in an effort to protect the vital organs. Early warning signs include shivering, blotchy skin, blue fingers and toes, and numbness or tingling. As the body’s core temperature continues to drop, other symptoms may appear, including stiff muscles, cramping, slow breathing, and a slow or irregular pulse, as well as behavioral changes like having trouble remembering things, decreased coordination, slurred speech, reduced attention span, and a careless attitude. In the worst cases, the internal organs begin to shut down, resulting in cardiac arrest and death.
Here are a few tips to help you reduce the risk of hypothermia:
– Always prepare in advance for the worst weather. Wear fast-drying, non-cotton clothing, and always carry extra layers for warmth and rain protection. When boating, always bring a dry bag with a change of clothes.
– Feed your inner fire. If you’re going hiking or camping, bring along extra food, including sugary snacks that can be quickly converted to energy. Eat often, especially when cold weather hits.
– Always carry a small tarp or large plastic bag that can act as an emergency shelter against wind and rain.
– If a storm hits, make camp right away. Constructing tents and tarps takes time and energy. If you wait too long to create shelter, the cold may sap your strength before you get the chance to finish.
– Continually contract your muscles to keep your blood flowing, but avoid strenuous activities that take too much energy.
For more tips on combating hypothermia, see our article on frostbite and hypothermia in winter.