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Hypothermia: surviving the cold

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dear editor:

Each year in Canada, more than 80 people die from over-exposure to the cold.

Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition in which the body can no longer produce more heat than it is losing. ‘Wind, wet and cold’ is the key combination that can cause the body’s internal temperature to drop below 35 degrees Celsius. 

In Nova Scotia, we are accustomed to winter weather but should never lose sight of the precautions we need to take to stay warm. In addition to keeping warm, most hypothermia-related deaths can be prevented by educating yourself about the warning signs and treatments.

The initial signs of mild hypothermia include shivering and confusion. Once the condition becomes more severe, shivering may stop and symptoms can worsen to unconsciousness, little or no breathing and a weak pulse.

If you suspect that someone is succumbing to hypothermia, take immediate measures to prevent further heat loss and seek medical help. Move indoors if possible, lay the person down and replace wet clothing with warm clothes or blankets. If the person is conscious, supply a warm drink, but avoid alcohol and caffeine. 

To stay warm and dry yourself, dress in multiple layers with a wind-resistant outer shell and waterproof footwear. Your body’s extremities, such as the ears, nose, fingers and toes, lose heat the fastest, so wear a hat, gloves and a scarf.

Hypothermia can happen anywhere – you don’t need to be on the slopes to be at risk.  Whether you’re building snowmen or shovelling your driveway, you should always protect yourself from the cold. 

Doctors in the province encourage all Nova Scotians to reduce their risk of hypothermia while enjoying the many activities winter has to offer. For more information about hypothermia, visit www.canadasafetycouncil.org.


John Finley, MDCM, FRCPC