Would Your Character Survive That: Hypothermia

  The elements are a great, and often untapped, way we writers can throw conflict at our characters. There is actually an entire genre of thriller/horror dedicated to stories of man vs nature. Stories that pit our human will to survive against typhoons, hurricanes, floods, and forest fires.  

  The human body needs a balance of certain things to live. And natural disasters just have a way of upsetting that balance so easily. Fires provide too much heat. Floods give us way more water than we need. 

  While blizzards, ice-covered lakes, and even light rainfall we can't get out from under can create cold that kills.

   (Note: This post is meant to help writers add realism to their fictional worlds. It is not meant as medical advice. If you ever feel like you need medical advice please contact a medical professional right away.)


   Hypothermia is defined as: "the condition of having an abnormally low body temperature, typically one that is dangerously low".

    Since the human body needs to stay at exactly 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit at all times, it can be surprisingly easy for us to slip into hypothermia. In fact, shivering is often considered one of the first signs of hypothermia. Can you think back to the last time you shivered because you were cold? It happens to me at least once a day.

   But shivering hasn't killed me yet, so where is the line between low and dangerously low and what symptoms would we see?


   Since body type affects how each person reacts to cold it is hard to put an exact time on when someone will experience each of the following symptoms. However, each of these symptoms is considered when a doctor diagnoses hypothermia and determines what steps to take during treatment. How a character is treated and how long it will take them to bounce back will depend on which stage they reach. 

  Mild (Stage One): 

   As mentioned above shivering is one of the first symptoms of hypothermia. This is the bodies attempt at creating heat through rapid movement. It is possible for the victim to experience a mixture of hunger and nausea, an increase in their breathing and pulse, and difficulty speaking such as slurring their words or difficulty moving.

   Moderate (Stage Two): 

   As the hypothermia worsens the victim will become sluggish. Their pulse will become weak. Their breathing will slow down. They'll become clumsy, significantly confused, irritable and sleepy.  The colder the victim gets, the less their brains will function. Interestingly, shivering will stop. They will develop apathy and a general lack of concern though they are in dire straights.

   Severe (Stage Three):

   At this stage, it is highly probable the victim will lose consciousness. Their breathing and pulse will be at its weakest and might even be absent altogether. The desire to lay down and sleep will often lead to the victim curling up in the snow only to never get up again.    


 So, your character has just been rescued or escaped death by hypothermia. Now what?

  How to treat someone with hypothermia depends on what stage of hypothermia they are in.

  Getting the victim out of the elements and someplace warm is the first step. Any wet clothing should be removed. The whole body, including the head, should be wrapped with dry cloth or blankets. It might also be necessary to use additional cloth to insulate them from the ground if it is cold. If they are conscious a warm drink with lots of sugar can be used to warm them from the inside, however they should not be given alchohol or caffeine. It may also be necessary to provide skin to skin contact. 

  With victims who are in the later stages of hypothermia, it may be necessary to perform CPR if their breathing has slowed significantly or stopped altogether. Sudden cardiac arrest may occur as the body is rewarmed thanks to the heart slipping into an irregular rhythm.

  Direct heat such as heat lamps or hot water should not be used as this can cause irregular heart rhythm and send the victim into cardiac arrest. Rubbing and other jarring movements should be avoided for the same reason.  


   Preventing and surviving hypothermia when in water requires different steps than if you're simply caught in a blizzard.   

   Frigid water lowers the bodies temperature twenty-five times faster than frigid air. This means the victim needs to get out of the water, get dry, and get warm immediately.

   Unlike when dealing with hypothermia on dry land, in water, the victim should be as still as possible to conserve body heat. Swimming around will not warm them up. 

   If getting out is impossible the victim should find a flotation device they can use to keep their head above water while they move as little as possible and wait for help to arrive.


  Alchohol does not warm you up and actually has the opposite effect.

  Fast blowing cold wind will increase the likelihood of hypothermia thanks to the wind chill factor.

  Wool retains heat better than synthetic fibers. 

   In some extreme cases, the victim will suffer from what's known as paradoxical undressing. This occurs when the victim becomes so delirious that they actually start to think they are too hot instead of too cold. Some theorize this is because the body can't actually differentiate between extreme hots and extreme colds. So, when the victim loses their cognitive function they lose the logic necessary to tell they are cold.

   Infants are at a higher risk for developing hypothermia because they can not shiver. Some possible symptoms that might show up in infants: Cold skin, bright red skin, a weak cry, and very low energy. 


   Hypothermia is one of the more serious conditions a person can endure without being injured first. It is really easy to develop, has a serious potential for fatality, and is actually surprisingly easy to bounce back from when caught in time. All of this makes it a great way to add conflict to our stories. So, the next time you're scratching your head, looking for something juicy to throw at your characters in the second act, give hypothermia a try.

  Thanks for joining me this week! If you like the Would Your Character Survive That Series be sure to let me know by hitting that like button below. If you have any questions about the topic or any stories or knowledge you'd like to share, let me know in the comments! I am always looking to have the most up to date info and you're thoughts might get added to the post.  

   God Bless,