In last week’s column (“Safety tips for you and yours during spring break,” The Daily News, March 8), I mentioned the danger of hypothermia as a result of swimming in the cold beach water. While most of us know the basics of what hypothermia is, there’s specific information that could be helpful, especially when swimming during the colder months.

The Mayo Clinic describes hypothermia as “a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature.” This “dangerously low” body temperature starts at 95 degrees and is more severe the lower it gets.

Your system doesn’t work well when the body is at lowered temperatures. If untreated, hypothermia can lead to heart and respiratory system failure. Eventually, it can cause death. Sounds scary right?

Does this mean that every time your child starts to shiver, he/she is going to have serious problems? Of course not. This may just be an early warning sign for mild hypothermia.

The first thing your body does when its temperature drops is to shiver. What it’s trying to do is generate heat by causing movement. When swimming, this is the sign that it’s time to warm up. It may be a matter of just sitting in the sand for awhile then jumping back in the water on a warm day. Or when conditions are more serious, this is the signal that you need to get out of the water and warm up, now.

Hypothermia is divided into three categories — mild, moderate and severe.

The symptoms for mild hypothermia include shivering, hunger, nausea, fast breathing, difficulty speaking, slight confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue, and increased heart rate. As your temperature continues to drop, moderate to severe hypothermia kicks in. Shivering eventually stops and you’ll start to show clumsiness, slurred speech, confusion (even to the point of trying to remove warm clothing) and eventually loss of consciousness, weak pulse, and slow, shallow breathing. Babies may have bright red, cold skin, low energy and a weak cry.

Warming a person with a more advanced case of hypothermia can be tricky, since you don’t want the cold blood in the extremities to rush to the center of the body. In these cases, you want to call 911 for professional help and to move the person as gently as possible indoors. Remove wet clothing and cover them in lots of blankets. Then wait for help to arrive.

Differentiating between mild and more severe cases can at times be difficult so, as always, when in doubt call 911. But for those cases that we all experience where we’re just shivering a little and our body temperature is near normal, warm sun and maybe a hot chocolate is just the thing. Then get back out there and keep having fun.

The good news is that the water is warming up into the 60s, and soon will be comfortable for swimming. Just remember that even in warm water swimming for long periods of time can still drop your body temperature.

Peter Davis is chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. The views in this column are Davis’ and do not necessarily represent those of the Beach Patrol, Galveston Park Board of Trustees or any other entity.

(1) comment

Robert Ray

While I am not a medical professional, I have been an Arctic Warrior (US Army Soldier stationed with an Infantry unit in Alaska) trained in survival in that extreme. Despite a two-year hitch in that extreme, I only suffered hypothermia once while there. But that’s not a hard place to imagine such a thing happening. I suffered a second round of hypothermia during my first attempt at running a half-marathon.

It is in this second instance I found the lesson I wish to pass on to readers today. Because, despite having experienced this deadly cold injury once before, I was oblivious to my own symptoms the second time around. Sure, it was not really all that warm the day of the race, but I thought I had dressed for the day and I was going to be running, exercise to keep my body temperature up. But alert race officials noted the symptoms as I passed one of the checkpoints and followed me for a bit before stopping me and checking me over, ultimately pulling me from the race and handing me over to the medical professionals on hand. Now that might seem way different from swimming and having fun on the beach here in Galveston, and it is. But my biggest point is that, as with heat injuries, we don’t always know or understand when we might be experiencing one. We shiver because it’s cold and we don’t worry about it because we know it’s cold. And all too often, when we stop shivering, we tell ourselves that we’ve warmed back up. That’s why it is very important to use the buddy system and check each other periodically! Ideally, when in the cold water, we should have at least one person who stays warm on the shore who checks us out at regular intervals. If everyone is in the water, then each person in the buddy team needs to be very aware of the symptoms of hypothermia and everyone needs to check each other regularly. In water temperatures below 60 degrees, it takes remarkably little time to become hypothermic. And while the mildest signs are easy to treat, as hypothermia progresses and euphoria begins to set in, the signs get harder for the individual to notice and the injury gets harder to treat.

So be safe out there and buddy up!

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