Throw some alcohol into the mix and this can be a deadly combination. The CDC estimates that 1300 deaths occur each year due to hypothermia. So what is hypothermia?
What is hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature and can occur in minutes. Human body temperature averages around 98.6 degrees F. But hypothermia starts setting in at 95 degrees with shivering, increase respiratory and heart rate, and even confusion. We forget that glucose stores get used up quickly so hypoglycemia can ensue as well, making matters worse, especially in someone who is intoxicated. Frostbite can occur as blood flow decreases to the tips of the ears, fingers, nose and toes. As hypothermia progresses, the shivering and muscle contractions strengthen, skin and lips become pale, and confusion worsens. This can lead to severe hypothermia, eventually causing heart failure and/or respiratory failure, leading to a coma and if not reversed, death.
Hypothermia can mimic looking drunk
Someone who is hypothermic may slur their speech, stammer around and appear uncoordinated. This sounds identical to your drunk buddy on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, this can be deadly as many hypothermic partiers get written off as being drunk.
So if you suspect hypothermia, call for medical assistance. Anyone you think is eliciting signs of hypothermia should be brought indoors, put in dry clothes, covered in warm blankets, and then wait for paramedics to arrive. It’s important to try and warm the central parts of the body such as head, neck, chest, and groin, but avoid direct electric blanket contact with the skin and active rubbing if the skin is showing signs of frostbite.
Why not use hot water to warm up a hypothermic individual?
Hot water will be too caustic and can cause burns. Remember, the body is shunting blood away from the ears, fingers, toes, hands and feet to warm the heart, brain and other vital organs. The skin will be in a vulnerable state during hypothermia and frostbite and will burn the underperfused skin.
Alcohol increases the risk of hypothermia
We’re outside in the cold, not bundling up, dancing, sweating, becoming dehydrated. Add alcohol to the mix, and its deadly. Here’s the scoop on alcohol toxicity.
When it comes to hypothermia, the best thing you can do is prevention. Its the biggest party of the year so prepare yourself by doing the following:
- Wear multiple layers of clothing
- Bring an extra pair of dry socks
- Avoid getting wet (i.e. falling off a boat, getting splashed with champagne)
- Change your clothes if you worked up a sweat dancing
- Check with your medical provider if some of your medical conditions (i.e. hypothyroid) or medications (i.e. narcotics, and sedatives) put you at risk for hypothermia
- Avoid alcohol intoxication
- Keep an eye on your more vulnerable buddies who include children, older individuals, and those with intellectual disabilities.
A Happy New Year should also be a Healthy New Year. So be warm, dry, safe and have fun!!
Medical Spanish made easy
Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network, iHeart Radio and Board Certified Family Physician