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Hypothermia: Symptoms & Recommended Treatments While Boating

March 21, 2022

Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in core body temperature caused by prolonged exposure to cold. Normally, our body temperature remains around 37°C. A drop of just a few degrees can seriously affect the body, and a more significant drop can prove lethal.

Because immersion in cold water lowers body temperature 25 times faster than air, hypothermia is a particular danger when boating. In this article, the experts at Drive a Boat Canada present an overview of the symptoms of hypothermia, how to treat it, and preventive measures you can take to increase your chances of survival in the event of a cold water emergency.

Symptoms of hypothermia

The symptoms of hypothermia differ depending on its severity. Mild or moderate hypothermia can easily become more severe if left untreated, so it’s important to keep monitoring the victim for any changes in symptoms that may occur.

  • Mild hypothermia (drop of 1 or 2°C): The victim is shivering but coherent. They may feel tired or groggy.
  • Moderate hypothermia (drop of 2 to 4°C): The victim is shivering violently. They are confused and uncoordinated. They may have cyanotic (blue) extremities and difficulty breathing.
  • Severe hypothermia (body temperature drops below 32°C): The victim is no longer shivering. Their pulse and breathing may be weak or irregular. They may be irrational, semi-conscious or unconscious.

Recommended treatments for hypothermia

When treating someone for hypothermia, it’s important to warm them up in a way that doesn’t shock their body or increase the circulation of cold blood towards their vital organs, which can trigger cardiac arrest. The procedure to follow depends on the severity of the hypothermia. If you are unsure, follow the protocol for moderate to severe hypothermia.

Mild hypothermia

  • Get the victim into dry clothing and bring them to a warm place to recover.
  • If the victim is alert enough to swallow, they may be given a warm, sugary drink. Sugar provides quick energy that helps the body produce heat. Never give a hypothermia victim anything that contains alcohol or caffeine.

Moderate to severe hypothermia

  • If the victim is wearing wet clothing, remove it without jostling them. The clothing can be cut away if necessary.
  • Hypothermia victims should be handled gently—excessive movement can trigger cardiac arrest.
  • Lay the victim face up with the head slightly lowered to increase blood flow to the brain.
  • The victim should be covered with dry blankets to prevent further heat loss. Remember to cover their neck and head as well (a hat and scarf can be used if available).
  • Do not rub their extremities—cold blood returning to the vital organs could trigger cardiac arrest.
  • Warm the victim gradually with compresses or skin to skin contact, focusing on the neck, chest and groin areas.
  • Seek medical attention immediately.

Victim appears dead

If the victim appears dead, assume they can be revived. Check for a pulse. If there is no pulse, begin CPR. Warm the victim while performing CPR and continue until medical help arrives.

Cold water survival

There are a few things you can do to give yourself a better chance of survival if you find yourself in cold water. Your best option is to get yourself out of the water as fast as possible. If your boat is equipped with a reboarding device such as a ladder, you’ll have a better chance of getting yourself out of the water before the cold sets in.

It’s vitally important to wear a lifejacket or PFD (personal flotation device) at all times while boating. Wearing a PFD will keep you afloat if you are incapacitated due to cold water shock (the body’s response to sudden immersion in cold water). With a PFD on, you can also assume the Heat Escape Lessening Position (H.E.L.P.). The position, which consists of crossing your arms against your chest and drawing your knees up, can increase your survival time by 50%.

It’s also important to have distress flares on hand so that those on board can signal for help in the event of an emergency. Reboarding devices, PFDs and distress signals are part of the safety equipment required on a boat.

Finally, it’s a good idea to file a boating float plan with someone you trust before your departure so that you can be found easily if something goes wrong on the water.

Boat safely with Drive a Boat Canada

Hypothermia is a very real and present threat on the water. The odds of survival increase significantly if it is recognized and treated in time, which is why it’s so important for boaters to know how to handle the situation.

Find out more about boating safely from Drive a Boat Canada! After you master the basics with our boating safety course, you’ll be able to take the boating exam online to obtain your Transport Canada pleasure craft operator card, which is required in order to boat legally on Canadian waters.