SciTech

Health Talk: Avoid hypothermia by staying warm; alcohol accelerates heat loss

As the snowy weather shows no signs of letting up, students are constantly reminded of one aspect of winter — it’s very cold outside. And even when proper measures are taken to stay warm, such as bundling up and hurrying to class, cold weather poses a health risk to those who are forced to stay outside for long periods of time.

Many people believe the human body is always at a constant 98.6°F, but the body’s internal temperature normally fluctuates between 98°F and 100°F. Various processes in the body regulate the internal temperature, but the body cannot compensate for extremely cold temperatures. If the body’s internal temperature drops below 95°F, this becomes a medical emergency known as hypothermia, according to Mayo Clinic.

The part of the brain that regulates body temperature is the hypothalamus, which both obtains temperature data from the body and sends instructions back, as stated in an article on www.medicinenet.com. For example, when we are feeling cold, the hypothalamus recognizes that body temperature must be increased. Thus, it may respond by telling our muscles to shiver.

Most of the body’s heat is lost through the skin. Therefore, as the body’s temperature decreases, blood is routed through vessels that are further from the skin, which prevents rapid heat loss. In addition, the more vital organs, such as the heart, lungs, and brain, receive greater amounts of blood, while limbs and extremities receive less. When the body’s core temperature decreases enough, blood flow, and therefore oxygen delivery, may be so limited to certain organs that they begin to fail.

Hypothermia is dangerous not only because of its effects on the body, but also on the mind. As blood flow becomes restricted, the brain’s reasoning ability decreases. Since the onset of hypothermia is gradual, a hypothermic person may not even realize he or she is in danger. Other symptoms of hypothermia include hunger, nausea, confusion, lethargy, and slurred speech, according to www.medicinenet.com. If a person’s body temperature drops too low, he or she may lose consciousness and fall into a coma. In addition, low temperatures cause the heart to beat abnormally, resulting in cardiac arrest.

Treatment for hypothermia involves moving the victim to a warm place and covering him or her. The body should be gradually heated. In many cases, frostbite occurs along with hypothermia, so heat should not directly be applied to the body.

Everybody gets cold, but certain people are more susceptible to heat loss than others. Children and the elderly cannot generate heat efficiently, and infants, who have proportionally large heads, lose heat quickly. Alcohol seems to make the body warmer, but the opposite is true; alcohol causes blood vessels to dilate, which forces blood nearer to the surface of the skin. In addition, alcohol diminishes the amount the body shivers. As a result, body heat is lost at a faster rate.

While hypothermia is a medical emergency, it has its use in medical procedures. One of these procedures is called therapeutic hypothermia, which is usually performed on patients who have suffered from a heart attack. If the body is cooled to a temperature around 93.2°F after it has suffered from a heart attack, survival rates have been shown to increase, and the patients show a greater amount of recovery.
Hypothermia is dangerous, but can easily be prevented by using common sense and avoiding harsh weather.