A scuba diver comes out of the warm waters of the pristine beaches of Oahu with the sun burning high in the sky. He collapses and shivers onto the sand, struck with hypothermia.
When writing, random knowledge that I have gathered over the years has a way of popping up. I find that it has a way of making my stories more realistic when I can put in information that I know, but may not be common knowledge. So we’re starting a new series here on OKPotato where we will talk about random references that you might learn something new from and be inspired to write into your stories. (Please let us know if any of these random references make it to your stories in the comments below!)
This series was inspired by a panel I attended at a past convention where we learned about hypothermia. I went to it under somewhat false pretenses as it was sold as a panel about hypothermia and deep space cryogenic travel (which I am terribly interested in because it seems so unfeasible, but that might be for another post), but it was interesting nonetheless and I thought I could definitely use it in a story where there was a MC in the middle of the snow on a different planet and lost in a blizzard with a tauntaun (Star Wars reference).
So, first off, what is hypothermia? According to webMD, its symptoms for adults are:
- Shivering, which may stop as hypothermia progresses (shivering is actually a good sign that a person’s heat regulation systems are still active.)
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Confusion and memory loss
- Drowsiness or exhaustion
- Slurred or mumbled speech
- Loss of coordination, fumbling hands, stumbling steps
- A slow, weak pulse
- In severe hypothermia, a person may be unconscious without obvious signs of breathing or a pulse
Hypothermia symptoms for infants include:
- Cold-to-touch, bright red skin
- Unusually low energy
- Something interesting — with young kids in particular, when they are “cold and dead” they’re still considered alive/not-dead until “warm and dead.” Children have incredible resilience to cold and even though they may appear to be dead while freezing, once warmed, they can sometimes make astounding recoveries.
Hypothermia starts in the body’s extremities and it also affects how the body reacts to things like scratches and scrapes as it can hinder the clogging process. There was more on this, but not being of a chemist nature, it all went over my head (feel free to reshare this information with me if you happen to look it up). Something I did retain is that sulfur dioxide (which is that gas that smells like rotten eggs and can kill humans in large doses) can somehow keep the body alive when the heart stops beating. (I’m not sure if this had anything to do with hypothermia, but there were a lot of tangents we went on and it’s in my notes.)
We heard some interesting anecdotes from our panelist about frostbite and his experiences living in Alaska and other parts of the northern US. After a few personal stories which you would have to ask him about yourself, the panelist told us that sometimes people chill their alcohol in the outdoor sub zero temperatures (stick a bottle in snow), not realizing that alcohol has a lower freezing point than water. So when they drink the now sub zero alcohol, the liquid immediately freezes their throats (relevant information for all those fantasy stories that take place in the snow).
The average temperature on this planet is 52 degrees fahrenheit which is more than cool enough to develop hypothermia. Often times one might not feel as though it is that cold, but with factors such as wind chill, the body’s temperature can drop lower than it is able to regulate which brings on the onset of hypothermia.
I recently looked up hypothermia again because I thought it wasn’t common where I live. It isn’t, but I learned that it was possible to catch in warm waters (anywhere from 81-92 degrees fahrenheit). Called “Silent Hypothermia,” mostly long-dive scuba divers will get this because they are not insulated properly from the colder-than-body-heat temperatures. Their body doesn’t think it is freezing, skips over the normal thermal-regulatory systems (shivering) and goes straight to hypothermia. Beyond a certain point, there is no difference between cold onset and warm water onset of hypothermia. (http://www.leisurepro.com/blog/scuba-guides/warm-water-hypothermia/)
Preventative measures are usually best and one can never prepare too much. There are tales from World War II where Russian soldiers would walk on layers of felt to prevent their touching the freezing ground, further insulating themselves. Different techniques of layering different fabrics can also effectively change the way that your insulation works. Wear loose fitting, layered, lightweight clothing and outer clothing made of tightly woven, water-repellent material is best for wind protection. Wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers hold body heat better than cotton. (http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypothermia/basics/prevention/con-20020453)
Those who are freezing to death often feel the need to take off their clothes and scientists are unsure why this behavior is exhibited. One theory is a “Burrowing Instinct” to get naked and tunnel into the ground and into warmer areas.
Cases of severe hypothermia result in a slowing and stopping of the heart.
Another interesting thing I learned: people who stowaway on aircraft can survive the extreme conditions because they develop hypothermia that protects them (for longer) from hypoxia. It’s because they nearly freeze and their body shuts down, that they are less susceptible to the lack of oxygen. It is rare though, they usually die.
Other animals, such as the tardigrade, can survive by inducing hypothermia during hibernation or during trying situations.
So, that’s what I learned about hypothermia. Hope you learned a new tidbit or two. Let us know in the comments below what other random things you’d like to read about so I can do the research for you!