by Brian Griffin January 15, 2019
Hypothermia, being a malady that involves the lowering of the body's core temperature, is usually thought of as being a danger only during cold weather or due immersion in cold water. For the most part this is true, and it's one of the reasons I chose to write this piece this season, when hypothermia can be a real danger to anyone in any cold environment. It's a little known fact that hypoglycemia can lead to deadly hypothermia when ambient air temp is in the 60s, and well above freezing, so it can be a very serious danger in the cold season for those who are at risk. To put that into perspective, hypothermia sets in when the body's core temperature drops below 95F/35C. At 91F/33C the person can experience amnesia. At 82F/28C the person will likely lose consciousness. At 70F/21C it is considered profound hypothermia and is deadly.
For most of us, just taking along some extra warm clothing when we expect low temps will be enough of a precautionary measure. With the additional layers to insulate our bodies from the cold air, and hold in the heat we produce naturally, it will protect us from environmentally produced hypothermia in most cases. However for the people who suffer from blood sugar issues, malnutrition, and thyroid disorders (just to name the more common ones), the extra clothing may be little to no help during an episode of hypothermia brought on by hypoglycemic reaction from low blood sugar. During these episodes the body temperature isn't, at least not solely anyway, dropping due to the air temperature. It's dropping due low blood glucose levels being too low and their body is no longer producing heat of its own. Left unchecked and untreated their core temperature will continue to drop to the temperature of their environment. For someone undergoing hypoglycemic hypothermia the root cause, low blood glucose levels, needs to be dealt with in order to get their body to start producing heat again. But it may also be necessary to supply a warmer environment for them while that's underway, even if you have to improvise it. If you aren't familiar with it, Hypothermia's symptoms can include (but aren't limited to) shakiness, confusion, weakness, loss of color, incoordination, and blurred vision.
There are special kits which are made especially for this purpose that some who know they're at risk carry, but in a pinch it can be improvised. The SOP for elevating blood sugar levels in these cases is the 15/15 rule. Administer 15 grams of carbohydrates, and wait 15 minutes to gauge the progress. The goal being to raise their glucose level safely, without taking them in the opposite direction. Luckily in many cases, the overall atmosphere in urbanized areas is rife with ways to quickly raise a person's blood sugar levels during the holidays. If they have glucose tablets or gel tubes, you should just follow the directions. Otherwise a tablespoon of sugar or honey, a half cup of juice, soda, or other sweetened drink, candies, or cake icing can be used when nothing better is available.
As for supplying a warm environment goes, obviously in the cold season getting them in doors as quickly as possible will significantly slow the dropping of their core temperature. If you are outside and cannot get inside quickly, sharing your own body heat with them could save their life. This is also another case where a bivvy bag and hand warmers can come in handy, specifically to create a small warm environment on the spot. I've mentioned this before and I am sure I will mention it again in the future, because this technique can help save lives and doesn't take up a lot of space in a kit. If you don't have an emergency bivvy handy a couple of big trash can liners can be used to create the smaller environment.
In a worse case scenario, hand sanitizer can be burned to generate heat in a small space like an automobile, a closet, or a restroom. You will want to provide adequate ventilation of course, but it burns cleaner than a lot of solid fuels. Just the small dollop of sanitizer you see burning on the metal surface of the water bottle cap lasted for over five minutes, and produced a good amount of heat. A full bottle of sanitizer will supply enough fuel to do this several times and could warm up a small enclosed space fairly quickly. The ethyl alcohol in hand sanitizer is easily ignited using a lighter, a ferro rod, or even just the sparks from a butane lighter that is out of fuel. It just needs to be placed on a nonflammable surface. I picked up the metal cap for the Kleen Kanteen the day I bought the bottle. I wanted the Kleen Karafe version, but the store I was at didn't have it in stock so I did the next best thing. I noticed the concave surface and thought then it could also serve as a the base for an improvised alcohol burner with hand sanitizer, to improvise a small heat source.
It is important to remember that when using this method in bright light, the pale blue flame will most likely be impossible to see. You'll need to look for the heat waves or feel for the heat radiating from the flames. It should also be noted that alcohol burns very hot. The heat from this flame was uncomfortably hot on my palm, even holding it a foot above it. If you're out of doors in a wilderness environment, the high heat of the burning alcohol also lets it serve as a very good accelerant for getting organic materials burning even under damp conditions, and in low temps a large fire could be necessary to keep the victims temperature from dropping too quickly.
We all always expect the holiday season to be a time of mirth and good cheer, and hope that it will be. Having a better understanding of the dangers that can present themselves this time of year can go a long way toward keeping things that way. I have seen this malady, and these fixes, in action twice in my life. The first time I was just a kid and got to learn the hard way on the fly, helping my diabetic friend's wife save his life with cake icing and our body heat on the side of the Chattahoochee River during a winter fishing trip. The first episode scared the crap out of me. During the second I was very thankful for the first. The more we all know about saving our lives, the better off all of us are.
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