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VOL. 11 NO. 12
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Cold-related injuries

What to do if you develop hypothermia

Cold-related injuries

Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged immersion in water cooler than body temperature (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37.5 degrees Celsius) results in heat loss. Symptoms of hypothermia occur when body temperatures fall below 95 degrees F/35 degrees C.

Because unexpected cold-water immersion is frequently due to accidentally going overboard or the vessel sinking, you’ll want to prepare for these eventualities. Practice crew-overboard drills often, and review emergency procedures, including the location and use of equipment, with passengers and crew before departure. Properly fitted life jackets help maintain body core temperature and may slow loss of body heat, so wear one at all times.

Involuntary gasping with cold water immersion may cause water inhalation and drowning. A victim wearing a life jacket will surface quickly and have a better chance at rescue.

The initial signs of hypothermia are obvious: cold skin, shivering, slurred speech and blue lips, whether in or out of water. As it progresses, loss of muscular control and unconsciousness can lead to drowning unless the victim is wearing a life jacket. Even with a life jacket and protective clothing, untreated hypothermia can be fatal.

If your vessel sinks, stay with it and climb out of the water if possible. If you’re alone in the water, do not remove clothing or shoes as they hold heat in your body. Draw your arms and legs as close to your body as possible to conserve heat. Don’t attempt to swim to shore as this rapidly increases heat loss. If you are with other people, huddle together with arms and legs intertwined, putting children in the middle.

Treatment for hypothermia consists of gradual warming. Medical evacuation to the nearest treatment facility is recommended in moderate to severe cases. If outside medical assistance isn’t available, remove wet clothing and wrap the individual in blankets or provide naked skin-to-skin contact. Warm sugar water should be given orally. Don’t administer alcohol as it dilates blood vessels and helps the flow of potentially damaging cold blood to vital internal organs, resulting in greater heat loss. Caffeine such as tea and coffee should be avoided due to their diuretic effects.

Warm, not hot, water bottles can be applied to areas over major arteries such as the neck, armpits and groin area. Do not vigorously massage extremities as this may result in heat loss through dilation of superficial blood vessels.

To learn more, take our Seamanship course.
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