What if you get caught outside in freezing conditions? What can you do to prevent hypothermia?
"The most important things are to stay warm and to stay dry and to stay out of the wind," according to Nico van Gijsen, former convener of the Cape Town Mountain Rescue Club. "Doing the right things in an emergency can save many lives."
"People should also know the warning signs of hypothermia. Most frequently the victims of hypothermia are the young and the old, or adults under the influence of alcohol or mentally ill individuals. The signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, slurred speech and drowsiness.
"Getting someone into a dry and warmer place can save their lives. Body heat from other climbers has been known to warm someone up who suffers from hypothermia," according to Van Gijsen.
Van Gijsen also suggested:
Damp kills. If you think someone has hypothermia and it is not possible to get them to a doctor, you should remove any wet clothing they may be wearing. Damp cools down the body and could lead to hypothermia.
Be clothing-wise. Waterproof clothing – especially the outer layer – is very important. Once your clothing is wet, it is better to take it off.
Don't be blown away by the wind. The wind chill factor is a reality – it increases the cooling down process in the body hundredfold, especially if someone is wet as well. Being out of the wind is as important as being out of the rain or snow.
Make a fire. When hiking, it is a good idea to wrap matches in a Ziploc waterproof bag, so that even if you get rained on, you can still light a fire. When indoors and the power is switched off, a grate fire could be a real lifesaver.
Stay put. If you are in a cave that is reasonably sheltered or in a car, stay there. Your chances of rescue are far higher. If in the car, run the engine for a few minutes every hour so that you can switch on the heater.
Keep your head covered. The body loses heat through its extremities – such as the hands and the feet, but mostly through the head. If your feet are cold, put on a hat.
Eat something. Your body can conserve the heat it has – but it needs other sources from which to generate energy, such as food. It is always a good idea to carry something such as a chocolate bar with you, which can generate instant energy.
Run on the spot. Exercise increases your blood circulation and can make your body generate more heat. A few minutes of exercise can do wonders.
Stay indoors. Stay inside if you're in a mountain hut. Don't wander around. In such cold, people can easily become disorientated and fall, or get lost.
Tell someone. Make sure a responsible person knows where you have gone, when you should get there and which route you have followed. In certain areas where there is cellphone reception, a charged cellphone can be a real lifesaver. Better still, never go on your own.
- (Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated September 2009)
First aid for hypothermia