Bantry Life Boat

A Search & Rescue Not For Profit Institution

What Is Hypothermia

Hypothermia (sometimes called exposure) is the biggest cause of deaths resulting from accidents in the water. Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below 35° C (96°F). Anyone who is exposed to severe cold without enough protection can develop hypothermia. Certain medications, medical conditions or the consumption of alcohol can also make people more susceptible to the cold.

As your body temperature begins to fall, your body responds by shutting down the supply of heat to the less vulnerable body parts, typically your limbs and other extremities, in an attempt to maintain the temperature of your vital organs. As your body temperature continues to fall, these organs fail, resulting in death. Most deaths occur as a result of heart failure when the body’s core temperature falls below 30° C.

The symptoms exhibited by a person suffering from hypothermia may include:

  • slow or irregular speech
  • shallow or very slow breathing
  • fatigue
  • confusion
  • slow pulse
  • weakness or drowsiness
  • shivering
  • cold, pale skin

Unconsciousness in victims usually occurs when the body temperature falls to within the range 30 – 32°C. Death can occur any time after this depending on the conditions and how quickly a victim receives treatment. There have been instances of victims being revived after many hours in an unconscious state.


The best way to guard against hypothermia in the event of an accident is to make sure that you are properly equipped for all water-based activities.

The sea temperature around Bantry Bay varies between about 10°C – 15°C throughout the year, with the warmest temperatures usually occurring in August. At 12°C, without suitable protective clothing, survival time in the water is estimated to be about forty minutes.

Your body loses heat 30 times faster in water than it does in air:

A survival suit (such as those worn by crew members of the “St. Brendan”) will help to maintain your body’s core temperature for much longer, increasing your chances of being rescued BEFORE hypothermia develops.

Wearing warm, woollen clothes, or specially designed thermal clothing, will also increase the length of time that you are able to survive, since the insulation properties of these fabrics are good, even when wet. You don’t see many sheep shivering in the rain!

Wearing an approved lifejacket is the single most effective step you can take to increase your safety on the water:

A lifejacket provides buoyancy which will keep you afloat without the need for you to use up valuable energy. Panicking, struggling, and swimming all use up energy faster which draws heat away from your internal organs, increasing the risk of hypothermia. Once exhausted, a victim will no longer have the energy to keep themselves afloat, increasing the risk of drowning in addition to the hypothermia risk. An approved lifejacket will keep even an unconscious victim afloat, and increase the chances of a successful recovery.

Hopefully with this article I didn’t get too much into the medical language. Hopefully it is well understood that hypothermia can be life threatening in any condition you are in but especially in the water. Make sure you are well equipped. As always, feel free to ask any questions.

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