Hypothermia Symptoms: Nursing Advice on Recognition and Treatment

NursingJanuary 09, 2014

Winter's frigid temperatures can transform the world into a dazzling splendor of ice and snow. Yet, beneath this beauty lies a health risk that can be life threatening: Hypothermia. In your role as a nurse, it is important to be able to recognize hypothermia symptoms and understand how to advise patients to protect themselves from this danger.

The human body was designed to operate within a limited temperature range. Your normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Once your temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the condition is called hypothermia, which is a medical emergency.

Hypothermia Symptoms: Physical and Mental Indicators

A key physical symptom involves constant shivering. Others include impaired coordination, stumbling and slurred speech as well as drowsiness, a weak pulse and slow, shallow breathing. Mental signs involve confusion and difficulty thinking along with apathy and poor decision making. As the symptoms impair thinking and often progress insidiously, a person with hypothermia is often unaware of it. This aspect is part of what makes the condition so dangerous.

If you have patients who are elderly, you will need to be on alert for mild signs of hypothermia that can arise from being in a poorly heated indoor environment or one that is air-conditioned. These signs include faster breathing and increased heart rate in addition to shivering, high blood pressure and fatigue. Confusion, a lack of coordination and difficulty speaking may also be present.

How to Prevent Hypothermia

Educating your patients about the measures to take to stay warm can go a long way in preventing hypothermia. These encompass a variety of areas such as how to dress for cold weather, staying dry, winter car safety and avoiding alcohol.

Dressing guidelines involve layering clothing and covering all body parts to prevent heat from escaping. Several lightweight layers of loose-fitting clothing will keep you warmer than one layer of heavier clothing. Wear a hat, a scarf and mittens so that your head, hands and neck will be somewhat protected from the cold.

Wet clothing in cold weather is a recipe for disaster. Avoid exertion and activities that would cause you to perspire excessively. If your garments get wet, change into dry clothing as soon as possible. Snow can easily get into mittens and boots, so make sure to keep your hands and feet dry.

Before you drive in wintry weather, prepare for the worst. Take along several blankets and nonperishable food items. If you happen to get stuck out in the elements, warm up the car by running it 10 minutes each hour, making sure a window is cracked open.

Drinking alcohol to warm your body is a myth. These beverages actually lower your body temperature, so avoid them prior to going to bed on a cold night or before going outdoors in cold weather.

Teaching the patients in your care these guidelines can reduce their likelihood of developing hypothermia; however, this condition can occur despite the best efforts to avoid it. If you see a person displaying any of the symptoms, seek medical attention for him or her immediately.

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