Hypothermia

Adapted from the Bay Area Sea Kayakers

Definition Hypothermia is a condition in which an organism's temperature drops below that required for normal metabolism and bodily functions. Cold water quickly sucks the heat out of a warm body, and kayakers are therefore especially at risk to become hypothermic, especially if immersed in cold water for extended time.  The water temperature in the coastal waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca varies only slightly over the year, with an average high of 54 degrees F (12.2 C) in the summer to an average low of 46 degrees F (7.8 C) in the winter. Symptoms
  • Stage 1: Mild to strong shivering occurs. The person is unable to perform complex tasks with the hands; the hands become numb.
  • Stage 2: Shivering becomes more violent. Muscle coordination problems become apparent. Movements are slow and labored, accompanied by a stumbling pace and mild confusion, although the person may appear alert. When asked, they often deny having any problems.
  • Stage 3: Body temperature drops below approximately 32C (89.6°F). Shivering usually stops. The person exhibits difficulty speaking, sluggish thinking, difficulty using hands. The exposed skin becomes blue and puffy, muscle coordination becomes very poor, and walking becomes almost impossible. The person exhibits incoherent and irrational behavior. This is an emergency situation. Major organs can fail and death can occur.
Prevention
  • Dress for immersion, i.e. the water temperature - not the air temperature! Wear a wet suit or dry suit year round.
  • Wear your PFD: a PFD can help minimize some of the heat loss by providing a small amount of insulation as well as minimizing movement while in the water.
  • Eat plenty and keep your body hydrated. This keeps the body fueled and better able to generate heat.
  • Avoid alcohol consumption prior to cold exposure as it may increase one's risk of becoming hypothermic.
  • Keep an eye out for your fellow paddlers. Once a person experiences mild hypothermia, they are much more likely to act imprudently, and much more likely to capsize, which would make their situation more severe
Treatment
  • Mild hypothermia: Treatment consists of drying, sheltering, and gradually warming of the patient  Warming too rapidly may result in a rebound of symptoms or even death. Encourage physical activities to generate muscle heat, get the person to a dry sheltered area, replace wet clothing with dry layers, and offer warm, sweet drinks.
  • Severe hypothermia: This must be treated as a medical emergency and the patient needs professional help at a medical facility.
  Safe Kayaking Knowing the symptoms of hypothermia, how to provide first aid treatment, and how to avoid this condition in the first place by dressing and fueling the body appropriately is part of safe and responsible kayaking.