Hypothermia: The cold killer

Published Nov. 2, 2015
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Water temperatures have dropped well below the normal warm bathwater temps you’d expect on a hot summer day in the south. This time of year most people aren’t expecting to get wet when they visit local lakes and rivers.

“You still need a plan,” said Kevin McDaniels, Chief of Operations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock District. “You have to expect the unexpected and be prepared to get wet.”

Accidentally falling in the water could prove to be fatal if boaters are unprepared. Corps officials believe this is one of the main reasons you should always wear a life jacket when on our around water.

 “Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it,” said David Moore, Little Rock District Water Safety Coordinator.

Boaters should dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Cold-water immersion causes many boating-related fatalities. It follows four stages: cold shock, swimming failure, hypothermia and post-rescue collapse. Most cold-water drowning fatalities are attributed to the first two stages.

 “If you fall in cold water without a life jacket the combination of shock and fatigue are going to play a huge factor in whether you survive or not.” Moore said.

The initial shock following an expected submergence in cold water causes panic and confusion followed by heavy breathing that can lead to hyperventilation. Many people faint and drown before they are able to calm down.

McDaniels also warns that alcohol consumption, age and physical fitness are going to come into play if you’re a good distance from the shoreline or your vessel.

If you are able to get out of the water you’re going to need warm clothes a blanket or heat source to get warm.

“This is when planning for the unexpected could save your life,” McDaniels said. “Having a change of clothes or emergency blanket in your vessel could be your best defense against the lingering effects of hypothermia.”

Getting out of the wind and wet clothing are very important during this time.

“If you don’t have a way to dry off and get warm recovery will be very difficult,” Moore said.

Corps officials are asking everyone to take a few extra minutes before you leave home to think about a cold water plan and the effects of falling in frigid water. Make sure you’re wearing a life jacket and the appropriate clothing and have a backup blanket or heat source to get warm.

Always file a float plan with someone before you leave. The assurance of someone knowing where you’re going might keep you from panicking if you’re in the water for a prolonged period of time.

Jay Townsend

Release no. 15-100