Dr. Lost Glove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cold

January 22, 2003 at 5:24 pm (General)

Since it’s frickin’ siberian out there, I thought it would be fun to have to look at the process of freezing to death, aka hypothermia. Imagine you can’t take the cold anymore, and decide to go drinking some night, only to stumble home afterward, losing your way.
First, hypothermia is more likely to fell men than women, more lethal to the thin and well muscled than to those with avoirdupois, and least forgiving to the arrogant and the unaware, i.e. my ass is grass.
Touch the stair railing coming out of the bar: the freezing metal bites your flesh and your skin temperature drops. Within a few seconds, the palms of your hands are a chilly, painful 60F (15C). The capillaries on your hands constrict, sending blood away from your skin and deeper into your torso in order to keep your vital organs warm.
You can train your body to counter-act this problem: if you work outdoors, gloveless, long enough into the season, your surface capillaries will occasionally allow blood to flow back to your extremities: hunter’s response.
So, you’re drunk and starting to freeze. However, you were sober enough when leaving the bar to button up properly. You start running to escape the cold, and your body temperature rises, blood starts going back to your fingers and toes. By now, your body temperature is about 100F (37.7C). You start to sweat, your clothes get wet.
The moment you stop running and exerting yourself, the cold attacks your wet clothes, drawing the heat away from your body, your surface blood vessels having been completely dilated. This is not a good thing.
After about 15 minutes, your body temperature will be back to normal. But wait, we’re not done. Your heat is still dissipating, and at 97F (36.1C), your upper back muscles tighten up, just before you begin to shiver. Once again, your capillaries have constricted.
If you haven’t gotten somewhere warm by now, your internal temperature will descend to 95F (35C), considered mild hypothermia. This is when you start to shiver like crazy. People have actually separated ribs and pulled muscles while shivering. It’s the body’s attempt to raise its metabolism and thus its body heat: it doesn’t work.
By now you’re a complete mess. Your coordination (already weak to begin with) is totally shot, and you could easily trip and fall. Doing so, your body loses even more heat through conduction with the sidewalk/street/ground. The thing is, you’re exhausted and tipsy, and you could really go for a rest.
By now, your body temperature is about 93F (33.9C), and amnesia is becoming a factor. You aren’t even sure anymore how to get home. You’re pretty much screwed by now, because you’re losing about 2F (1C) of body temperature per hour, and you’re still taking a rest on the ground.
You don’t even care anymore when you reach 91F (32.7C), and are pretty much unconscious at 90F (32.2C). A couple degrees below that, and your body stops shivering, your blood has thickened, you no longer take in as much oxygen, and your brain is hardly working. Funnily, your kidneys are working overtime because of your thickened blood, and you have to pee like nobody’s business, which is all you feel. (Side note: incidentally, while winter camping, it is actually imperative that you urinate if you get the urge. You can be snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug in your sleeping bag, but you’re also expending energy to keep your urine at body temperature, so out it goes. Pee bottles are great for this.).
87F (30.6C), you no longer recognise your friends, if any were to walk by.
86F (30C), your heart becomes arrhythmic, pumping less than 2/3 the normal amount of blood. Say hi to hallucinations. .
It’s happened that people believed they were burning to death, and have ripped off their clothes at this 85F (29.4C). This is called paradoxical undressing, and some victims are found nekkid.
If you’re not saved anytime soon, you’ll have shuffled off this mortal coil, pushing up the daisies, feckin’ snuffed it.
Ah, but here’s where it gets interesting. If you are saved, the last thing the doctors will do is warm you up, such as putting you in a warm bath. Why? The blood at your extremities is about 20F (8C) colder than your body core, so if your blood is to suddenly start circulating again, the sudden influx of cold blood would stop your heart. I can’t remember what the procedure is, but I believe it involves flushing the torso with water. Possibly involves making a slit in the stomach.
So, the next time you see a homeless person on the streets, or hear about those cheesedick cops in the Prairies who drive Natives outside of city limits to freeze at night, give an extra thought of what they’re going through.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned frost bite, frost nip, etc. This things you learn from First Aid, I tell ya.


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