In little time, hypothermia is serious trouble, doctors say

December 06, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

The victims of yesterday's fishing-boat accident in the Chesapeake Bay suffered from hypothermia, the dangerous *T lowering of the body's temperature.

Hypothermia is a condition present when the body's temperature falls about 4 degrees or more below the norm of 98.6 degrees, typically caused by prolonged physical activity in cold, windy weather.

Anyone spending more than 15 minutes in the cold water of the lower Bay yesterday would be at risk of some health hazards.

"After 30 to 40 minutes, you're in deep trouble," said Raquel Schears, an emergency room physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Some victims spent as much as two hours in the 50-degree water, a Coast Guard official said. Those who crowded into the lone life raft or climbed on top of the submerged fishing boat were whipped by 30-knot winds.

The people in the water would have fared the worst, said Stephen Turney, a thoracic surgeon at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

In cases of hypothermia, as the body temperature dips, drowsiness sets in and breathing and heart rates slow.

In severe cases, it leads to cardiac arrest, unconsciousness and death.

Treatment for hypothermia includes warming the body gradually, sometimes using warm baths or an enveloping mattress-like device filled with warm air. Warm fluid can also be pumped into the abdominal cavity.

If the body is warmed too quickly, the blood vessels at the body's surface can be enlarged, causing a rush of blood to the area, robbing blood from internal organs.

Some hypothermia victims suffer brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen flowing to the brain as the heart slows, Dr. Turney said.

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