The biggest killer in the wild isn’t lions and tigers and bears, oh my! It isn’t even dysentery or some other insidious hidden disease, waiting to pounce on you and work its evil way on your body.
No, the biggest killer in the wild is cold. That’s right, just getting cold will kill you and do so quite effectively. Of course, we call this killer “hypothermia.”
People get hypothermia and hyperthermia confused all the time; but it’s actually rather easy to tell them apart. We call an overactive child “hyper,” because that prefix means “over” or “too much of.” So, “hyperthermia” is too much temperature. Hypo is the opposite. It means “below” or “not enough of.” So, hypothermia is not enough temperature. Medically, it refers to the body’s core temperature dropping.
As the body’s core temperature drops, it reduces our ability to think and function normally. If it drops enough, we can’t think or function at all – and we die.
When we talk about the body’s “core temperature,” we’re referring to the temperature inside the body cavity and the head. This is where the critical functions of the body occur. In an effort to maintain the core body temperature, the body has a number of mechanisms that it uses. One of these is restricting blood flow to the extremities (limbs) so that the body’s heat can be kept in the core. This can cause frostbite, as the cells of the extremities begin to die off.
The thing is, it really doesn’t have to get cold for hypothermia to set in. We have to remember that the human body’s standard temperature is 98.6oF. If the ambient temperature is anywhere below that point, like it is most of the time, we lose body heat. That’s not usually a problem, as our bodies generate more heat than we need. We don’t really start feeling the effects of radiating heat until the ambient temperature gets down below 75oF.
However, if something happens to make us lose body heat faster than our metabolism generates it, we can be in danger of falling prey to hypothermia. Wind will make us lose heat faster than we are generating it, but getting wet will do so even more.
If you fall in the water, you will lose body heat faster than you are generating it. The colder the water is, the faster you will lose it. Even getting out of the water doesn’t help much if your clothing is wet. In fact, wet clothing can make you lose body heat as much as 300 times faster than standing there naked.
Hypothermia can be broken down into four different stages, identified by the core body temperature. Each of these stages has its own symptoms, which are often nothing more than increases along the same line of a particular symptom.