Over the last week I have heard a few stories about runners getting into a bit of trouble with the elements, and reflecting on how hard it is to interpret hypothermia warning signs … when you are the one who has gotten into trouble. One veteran runner had a ‘stomach emergency’ mid-run which led to too much exposure, and the inability to get warm. Fortunately there was a nearby gym where he stopped and called his wife to collect him. He noticed that he had a hard time operating his phone, and while driving home she remarked that the scary thing was that he was slurring his words.
Another runner was dressed for warmer temperatures, but got caught off-guard by heavy winds and a rapidly shifting front and was simply not dressed for the occasion. She was immediately aware of the danger, but actually got cold enough that she got confused and took a wrong turn on the way home, which cost her extra time. Fortunately she arrived safely and without any real harm, but it was a real wake-up call about being prepared and aware of the weather.
Both of these stories could have gone very differently based on a single scary thing:
A person with hypothermia usually isn’t aware of his or her condition, because the symptoms often begin gradually and because the confused thinking associated with hypothermia prevents self-awareness.
In these cases the people were aware enough to get out of trouble, and were in locations that allowed them to get to safety. But for many others circumstances make it more difficult to assess themselves for hypothermia warning signs. And once hypothermia sets in, a spiral of events can occur that can lead to permanent harm or even death all too quickly.
Here are some of the Hypothermia Warning Signs (from the CDC ):
- Clumsiness or lack of coordination in hands
- Slurred or mumbled speech
- Poor decision making or memory loss
- Exhaustion or very low energy
- Progressive loss of consciousness
- Weak pulse
- Shallow breathing
The CDC also has advice once you have assessed someone for hypothermia warning signs, most of which should be fairly self-explanatory:
- Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
- Remove any wet clothing.
- Warm the center of the body first.
- Give warm beverages to help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages.
- Keep wrapped in blankets even after temperature increases.
- Get medical attention as soon as possible.
I have mentioned that I have run this winter for up to 7 miles in conditions where the temperature was -5F with wind chills below -20F. These are potentially dangerous conditions, something I am very much aware of. I made sure to stay within range of communications and shelter, and to have plenty of layers to keep skin and core temperature protected. Even as I write this the temperature was in the mid-30s, but with 20+MPH winds the wind chills were in the tens, and freezing rain on top made for a potentially dangerous situation if you weren’t prepared.
The old saying “you’ll catch your death of cold” sounds quaint, but unless you know and are aware of the hypothermia warning signs it can become a very real possibility.
Have you had hypothermia scares? What do you do to stay safe?