When the erroneously dubbed "unsinkable ship" struck an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage in April of 1912, some 1,500 of the Titanic's passengers perished from hypothermia because of the frigid waters.
Indeed, serious complications can develop when the body's core temperature hits 90 degrees, and at 86 a person falls unconscious. So the colder the water, the shorter the time you can stay alive. Survival time can vary, too, based on things like body size and body fat content (heavier people cool more slowly).
Shivering and chattering teeth can be the first telltale signs of hypothermia. Others are: shivering, cold, blue or paling skin; mental confusion; slurred speech; enlarged pupils; and weak pulse and slowed breathing.
To stall off hypothermia if you're stranded at sea, don't make the common mistake of swimming or treading water, thinking that will keep you warm. Instead:
- Float as motionless as possible, keeping your head above water to minimize heat loss. A life preserver can help you do that, and keep you afloat if you lose consciousness.
- Assume the fetal position, also known as the "heat escape lessening posture" or huddle closely in a circle with any others in the water; place children in the middle to lend them additional body heat.
- If a boat is in the vicinity — even a capsized or swamped one — get in or on it (try to remove as much of your body from the water as possible).
To save a hypothermia sufferer, call for medical assistance and then take these first-aid steps to help the person regain heat:
- Gently move the person to shelter and warmth. The victim shouldn't walk. This will reduce the likelihood of cold, stagnant blood dropping the body's core temperature.
- Carefully remove the victim's wet clothing.
- Wrap the person in blankets. If available, put warm-water bottles or other gentle heat sources under the blanket on the person's neck, chest and groin.
- Don't put an unconscious hypothermia sufferer in a bathtub.
- Don't give the person anything to drink — not even hot liquids.
- Don't rub the victim's skin (especially not with snow).