Digging out in Oakville – Avoiding Hypothermia

It’s the morning after the snow day and I’m wondering if you, like me, are feeling the effects of all that shoveling yesterday?  We had around a foot of snow in Oakville and I hear it was worse in Hamilton.  It certainly was a good cardio workout and when we came back inside, all that shivering got me wondering – just how long would it actually take to develop hypothermia in this weather?  And could it happen here in suburban Oakville?

Hypothermia starts when we begin to shiver and our core body temperature drops below the normal 37 degrees Celsius (98.6F); it can get worse very quickly when the environment is below freezing and the body is wet.  In fact, even in July it is a very real threat to capsized boaters.  Severe hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below 30 degrees Celsius – a full 7 degrees below normal body temperature – at this extreme point our body stops trying to warm itself by shivering, loss of consciousness is common and as the extremities freeze the heart is fighting for every beat. Given the right conditions of cold and wet, severe hypothermia can progress rapidly. This is a LIFE THREATENING condition and requires urgent medical care.  Calling 911 is the first thing to do.

So was I really at risk?  A suburban snow shoveller?  Probably not.  I had easy access to essential heating and indispensable hot chocolate.  However, according to the Canadian Red Cross First Aid Manual, certain individuals are at a higher risk for hypothermia than the rest of us.  The elderly or very young, the hungry or dehydrated, and especially those with a medical condition related to poor circulation, are all at a heightened risk.

Venturing beyond our savvy technologies however, hypothermia can be a real threat even in Ontario.

So what can we do to prevent it?

The Canadian Red Cross says that layers of tightly woven fabric are the answer. We know that our bodies are constantly generating heat, but in a cold environment the key is to be able to regulate it efficiently.  As we shovel snow outdoors we produce extra heat and may even begin to sweat. We need to trap that heat, but release the moisture.  Multiple layers of woolen and synthetic fabrics, or puffy, down jackets, trap pockets of warm air close to our body protecting us from the outside temperature, but be careful of waterproof layers on top that can trap that moisture in.  Breathable windproof top gear is more desirable in dry weather.

It is good to remember that wet skin loses heat about 25 times faster than dry skin, so when we stop to chat with a neighbor and commiserate on the depth of the snow, our blood flow slows and we stop producing the extra heat.  If our skin is moist with sweat, our body temperature can drop rapidly and we are soon chilled.  It’s time to go inside.  Thankfully my synthetic clothing was excellent both at providing warm air pockets and at wicking moisture away from my skin keeping me comfortable and dry. My socks, on the other hand were cotton and while cotton’s absorbing and water collecting properties are great for a dishcloth, they are much less effective at keeping my feet warm!  It is wool socks for me today!

The bottom line is keep the whole body warm and dry from head to toe.

If you would like to learn more about winter first aid, the first signs of hypothermia, frost-bite and what to do if skin is frozen to a metal object, consider signing up for one of our standard first aid courses offered in Brampton, Mississauga, Oakville or Burlington.

And layer up, for I suspect there is more snow in the forecast for Ontario, despite what Wiarton Willie has to say!