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Winter cold fills the air. Water temperatures plummet. Clouds
block the warming sun and the winds chill you to the bones. But the
surf is really good! This is the time to protect yourself
because cold kills.
Knowing what the condition is, recognizing it, treating it and
preventing it in the first place are important!
What is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a lowering of the core temperature of your body.
Normal body temperature is 98.6oF (37oC).
When your body temperature drops too low (86oF, 30oC),
you lose consciousness. Cold water reduces body heat 25-30 times
faster than air and, when you're in the water, your "core"
(brain, spinal cord, heart and lungs) temperature drops.
Charlie Cruz suited up and ready for dawn
patrol. He's fully protected with hood, booties, gloves and a full
According to Alaska Information Cache, "The rate of body heat
loss depends on water temperature, the protective clothing worn, percent
body fat and other physical factors, and most importantly the way you
conduct yourself in the water."
Cold kills in two steps: exposure and exhaustion. The colder the
water, the less time you can survive (see Chart A).
How do you know if you or
something with you has it?
One of the key signs of early hypothermia is shivering. If you
start to shiver, if your teeth start chattering, get out of the water and
warm up! If you see someone with those symptoms, tell them to go get
Other signs of hypothermia include loss of coordination, mental
confusion, cold and blue skin (especially around lips or fingers).
Less noticeable, but just as important, are weak pulse, irregular
heartbeat and enlarged pupils. Once you see that someone's stopped
shivering, know that their core body temperature is dropping critically
and they need immediate attention.
|Chart A: How Cold Water Affects You
||Under 15 min
||Under 15-45 min
||3hrs to indefinite
|Over 80o f
How do you treat it?
The first and most obvious thing to do is get the victim to warm
shelter. That may be a hut, house or your car. Send someone
If help is nearby, make the victim as comfortable as possible, lay
them on their back, cover him or her with a blanket or pile on some
jackets or a sleeping bag.
If medical help will take a long time, apply heating pads or hot
water bottles to the head, neck, chest and groin (make sure you cover
them with a towel or other cloth so the victim doesn't get burned).
Don't put heat on the arms and legs or give the victim a hot bath!
That can actually be worse. Don't massage or rub the victim,
that's dangerous also. If the person is alert, you can give them
hot drinks (NEVER alcohol!
Wet Suit Protection
||Wet Suit Thickness
|Over 80o f
||None (rash guard
||2mm body 1mm
"Spring" or vest
||3mm body 2mm
Full or "Steamer"
||5mm body 4mm
|Below 40o f
Everyone reacts differently to cold water and every wet suit is
different. The comfort you get from a suit depends on a
variety of factors including suit material, wind chill and your
metabolism. The ranges above are for reference only and
should not be used when making your decision on a wet suit.
We strongly recommend you discuss your
selection with a wet suit manufacturer before purchase.
How do you prevent it?
Consider four ways your body loses heat:
- Respiration (heat escapes when we exhale)
- Evaporation (perspiration)
- Conduction (contact with cold water)
- Radiation (uncovered skin, e.g. head, hands, neck)
Protect yourself. Wear a wet suit (Chart B has some "rules
of thumb" about what thickness to get).
Keep your feet and hands warm with surf booties and gloves.
Wear a surf hat or hood to prevent heat loss. These items also
block the wind, another source of chill.
Keep moving while you're in the water to burn calories that generate
If you notice any of the symptoms of hypothermia, go to the beach and
get warm. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Adventure Sports Online
Alaska Information Cache
Dr. Ernest Campbell
Skin Diving Supply
Journal of the American Medical Association