Have you ever been really cold? Like teeth-chattering, shivering like crazy, cold? Would you believe that, at that moment, you were suffering from mild hypothermia?
If you are like most people, that probably sounds crazy. And for good reason. Except for people climbing huge mountains, or hiking in Alaska, hypothermia is just not something you’ve ever had to worry about. Right?
Now, what if you were told that the CDC recorded an average of 1,301 hypothermia deaths per year in the US between 1999-2011? That many of those deaths were regular people in regular places, who just ventured out or were otherwise unprepared during a severe winter storm?
What if you were told that you can get hypothermia in your own home during a winter storm, and you might not even realize it was happening?
Not only is hypothermia a very real danger to anyone in a home without heat during a winter storm, but that danger can happen anywhere it snows. So recognizing the signs of hypothermia, how to prevent it, and also how to treat it, can prevent one of your loved ones from becoming another number on that CDC bar chart.
What Is Hypothermia, Really?
Hypothermia is a condition where your core body temperature falls below 95° F, and your body is losing heat faster than it can produce it. To better understand the idea, think of the human body like trying to fill a bucket with holes in it. The holes let a certain amount of water escape the bucket, and as long as you fill the bucket at the same rate, the water level will remain in the same place. In balance. Well, if you make the holes bigger, without increasing the amount of water being poured, the bucket will empty faster than it can be filled. Simple.
The human body is just like that bucket. Our balanced temperature is 98.6° F. To maintain that balance and keep us alive, our body can either produce heat through shivering, or give off heat through sweating.
But when we are exposed to cold temperatures, our body starts losing heat faster than it can produce it. Sticking with our analogy, the holes are made bigger but the water can’t be poured any faster. The bucket is destined to empty out.
Back to our body’s, when heat is lost faster than it can be produced, hypothermia is the eventual outcome. And without intervention, hypothermia is fatal.
Since you can’t treat what you don’t recognize, it’s time to learn the symptoms.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
The interesting thing about hypothermia is it’s a deceiving and sneaky condition. When a person is first exposed to cold, they start shivering. That's the bodies natural way of trying to keep warm. If they don't seek shelter, the shivering will increase in strength to try replacing the heat being lost.
At this point, the individual doesn’t realize anything is wrong besides being uncomfortable. What they don’t know is that hypothermia is already taking hold. As the person stays in the cold, and hypothermia gets worse, the individual may become confused and start to suffer from poor judgement. They will have slower movements, and may even be clumsy. Their hypothermia-fueled confusion will likely prevent them from realizing something is very wrong.
With their core body temperature continuing to fall, their body will make a last-ditch effort to conserve vital energy and stop shivering. This person is now in need of immediate medical help to prevent death. During all of this, the victim likely won’t ever realize how bad their condition is getting.
If you didn’t realize how important knowing the signs of hypothermia were before, you sure do now. Below is the full list of symptoms:
- Pale skin that is cool to the touch
- Lack of concern about their condition
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty performing routine tasks
- Poor judgement
- Stiff muscles
- Slow pulse
- Sleepiness or Unconsciousness
- Severe confusion
- Shallow breathing
- The shivering stops
Any, or all, of these severe symptoms may occur. If even a single one of these symptoms is noticed in a cold person, you should assume they are experiencing severe hypothermia and help them get warm immediately.
So, as long as we stay inside this won’t happen. Right? If only that were true...
Hypothermia In Your Home
During a severe winter storm, there's a chance that power could be be knocked out to your home. In fact, a recent Department of Energy report noted that the aging U.S. power grid is no match for the increasingly severe storms that are happening. Without a major overhaul, power outages will only increase.
If you’ve never lost power during a winter storm before, it’s only a matter of time before you do. And, if you’re one of the majority of Americans who heat their homes using some type of fuel-fed burner and pump system, without power, you have no heat.
Depending on how insulated your house is (many are unknowingly, sub-standard), the temperature inside your house can drop to uncomfortable levels in just a few hours. As time goes on, the temperature will continue to drop as heat leaves the house through drafts, leaky windows, and poor insulation. Even with a brand-new, fully-compliant, super insulated home, the heat will still escape. Think about it, if the house could maintain a constant temperature, why would they still have heat?
With that indoor temperature inevitably falling, hypothermia risks start to climb. According to the University of Michigan Medical Center, hypothermia starts to become a real risk at temperatures as high as 50°.
Eventually, over a period of time, the inside of your powerless house will try and match the temperature outside. That means you can be sitting on your living room couch, but that couch might as well be in your front yard.
Hypothermia also doesn’t have to be a fast event, either. It can set in slowly, over a period of days, as your body slowly loses its heat edge. Little by little. You may have even experienced this yourself after being in the cold for a long time. Even after coming inside, you just don’t feel warm.
The #1 treatment for hypothermia is warming the person up! For mild hypothermia, treatment can be as easy as getting the victim to a sheltered spot and wrapping them in blankets. The added insulation gives their body a much needed boost against heat loss, and they will eventually warm themselves back up. For advanced or severe hypothermia, however, you have to be much more aggressive.
In severely hypothermic people, their body’s defense mechanisms have been stretched to the absolute breaking point. In this situation, active warming is needed. An external heat source like an electric blanket, warm water bottles, or even skin-to-skin contact with a warm person, will be required to prevent further damage and reverse the condition. This is not a matter of preference, either, it’s a matter of preventing a critical medical emergency and even death.
And if this occurs during a severe winter storm, with trees and power lines blocking roads, transport to a hospital may not be an option. The truth is, if conditions are bad enough, even 911 can’t respond.
Recognizing and treating hypothermia are two huge steps towards saving a loved one’s life during an extreme winter storm. What if we prevented the situation from even getting that bad in the first place?
The best defense against hypothermia is obviously adequate shelter and heat. As long as your power stays on, and the heat keeps pumping, your home will serve your every need towards preventing hypothermia. It could be a blizzard outside, with every road around you blocked up with trees, and you’ll be just fine as long as that power stays on.
That is, after all, how we avoid hypothermia all winter long on a normal basis. We stay inside and we turn on the heat.
The only problem is, that means you are relying on a 50-year old power grid that has created more power outages than any other developed nation, on Earth. Not only do blackouts happen during every significant storm, but the Department of Energy says that rate is on the rise. In the last decade, power outages due to storms have increased 124%.
So, if keeping the lights on and the heat working can be the difference between life and death during a severe winter disaster, the best prevention tip is to take matters into your own hands by securing your own electricity.
Whole home standby generators are the single most important investment a family can make towards preparing their home for severe winter weather.
Permanently installed and wired directly into your house, these generators start automatically the moment power is lost, and pick up the slack without missing a beat. No lugging a portable generator out into the snow, no messing with dangerous gas cans with freezing cold fingers, and no worries about carbon monoxide leaking into your house because the generator is too close.
They are the safety net every modern family should have.
And reliable generators, like those built by Cummins Home Generators, are specifically engineered to run like crazy until your power is restored. That could be in an hour, a few days, or even a few weeks. It won’t matter at all to your generator. Cummins has over 100 years of industry experience designing engines that work hard.
Just like the Cummins generators that protect emergency operations centers, hospitals, and military bases overseas, your home will never be without power or heat. You can go right back to never having to worry about hypothermia again, because your house can’t lose power.
But the good news is, now you know how to recognize hypothermia and treat it. So you can check that box off on the list of things you should be doing to prepare for severe winter weather. And if you want to check off the box labeled “never lose power again”, then locate your nearest Cummins dealer, and get a painless home estimate with financing through Synchrony Bank.