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Crew Health Advice: What is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a condition caused by prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures meaning the body loses heat faster than it can produce it.

The textbook definition is that a person is hypothermic when their core body temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius.

What are the main reasons people suffer from hypothermia?

  • Not wearing the right clothes for the environment.

  • Clothing gets wet and the air temperature is cold.

  • Drinking alcohol or taking certain types of drugs. This causes blood vessels to dilate and the blood is cooled more quickly.

  • Major trauma. Blood loss causes chilling of the core temperature and will affect the person’s ability to form clots around damaged vessels.

What are the signs and symptoms of Hypothermia?

In adults the following symptoms may be present:

• Shivering – this will disappear as the person becomes more seriously hypothermic

• Exhaustion or feeling very tired • Confusion• Memory loss• Slurred speech

• Drowsiness

• Fumbling hands

Symptoms of Hypothermia often sound like something else. Low blood sugar or possibly a head injury can also cause similar symptoms. Therefore, it is important to assess the situation and look at the environmental factors, the persons clothing and how long they have been exposed to cold temperatures. Have they been involved in an accident? What was the mechanism of injury? Could they be losing blood somewhere?

How to treat someone that we suspect has Hypothermia

• Remove them from the source and get them to a place where you can begin your assessment and treatment. At this point it is really important to understand just how vulnerable a hypothermic person is. Rough handling can dramatically increase the danger that they are in. So handle the person very gently and move them as little as possible.

• As always, assess their ABC’s and treat any issues accordingly.

Conscious? Once in a suitable area, remove any wet clothing and wrap them up in a blanket, sleeping bag or something similar. Make sure you also cover their head but not their face.

• The idea is to warm their core – the head, neck, chest, abdomen and groin.

• As long as they are able to manage their own airway and are able to tolerate it then warm drinks will also help.

Unconscious? Assess breathing and if it is undetectable then begin CPR and continue the rewarming process. Have you ever heard the expression “They are not dead, until they are warm and dead”? It is because, in some cases, hypothermic victims who are rewarmed can be successfully resuscitated.

Always ask yourself this:

Did the patient get cold then die?orDid the patient die and then get cold?

How do I take their temperature?

To do this accurately we need to try to get a core temperature. This is done using a thermometer designed to take low readings and is inserted through the anus into the rectum approximately 15cm.

Do they need to go to hospital?

YES! – Organise a medical evacuation at the earliest opportunity and make sure you have as much information as possible to pass on to the receiving facility.

The following handover template is in the

Ship Captain’s Medical Guide – 23rd Edition. It is an ideal guide to the type of information to gather for handover.

This advice was compiled in collaboration with Red Square Medical, who offer a full range of maritime medical services, from training and consultancy services, right through to mass casualty incident planning and training.



UK P&I Club are contributing Loss Prevention and Crew Health materials for the IMEQ Seafarers App as part of our established partnership. For further information on the UK P&I Club Loss Prevention and Crew Health activities please see



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