Danger, Will Robinson?

I provided a little interview material for a recent article over at diylife.com, which has garnered quite a few comments.  The most amusing of them was a guy who accused us of doing this only to save money in order to spend it on drinking more beer (which is funny, because we’ve actually been drinking less beer this winter.)  But here is an interesting comment thread:

“Autumn said… I think this is a bad idea. You could go to sleep one night and not wake up due to freezing to death. I have lived without heat before because of frozen pipes so I know you can get comfortable enough with warm clothing and lots of blankets but I think this is a dangerous thing to try.

Kelly said… Who ever froze to death at 52 degrees?

Justin said… It’s called hypothermia..and you only need your body temperature to drop to 95 degrees before it may not be able to be reversed. You may very well go to sleep and not wake up. Temperatures need not be below freezing for this to happen.”

This did get me thinking (after I stopped laughing, of course):  Is it likely, or even possible, that one could go to sleep euthermic, become hypothermic while sleeping, and perish without waking?

I’ve done a lot of outdoor activities in cold weather.  I have been mildly hypothermic, have been with people who were considerably hypothermic, and have known people who have died of hypothermia.  So I don’t take the topic lightly. Certainly it can and does happen that people become hypothermic, fall asleep / lose consciousness, and never wake up.  If you are already actively hypothermic, and your house (or igloo, or snow cave) is cold, I don’t suggest going to sleep.   I suggest staying awake and trying to get warm.

But my experience says (and a bit of research confirms) that an otherwise healthy person cannot go to bed warm-enough and then just die of cold in his sleep.  If you’re okay when you go to sleep, but start to get too chilly while sleeping, the first thing that happens is: you wake up, feeling cold!– so that your brain can do something about the situation before it’s too late.  Well before your brain becomes addled by cold, your body will start shivering violently enough to awaken you.  Indeed, if you’re feeling rather too chilly (but not seriously hypothermic), it’s pretty hard to get to sleep in the first place– which is a protective mechanism.

The fatal sleep that drags over hypothermic people after their body temperatures have dropped so low that their brains no longer function properly is a whole different story that unravels after your body’s defense mechanisms are exhausted.  But if you go to sleep not-hypothermic, you will not just drift off into hypothermia and perish without waking up and having a chance to do something about your situation first.

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11 Responses to “Danger, Will Robinson?”

  1. sara Says:

    LOL that was pretty good. Good thing you are a doctor.

  2. Rev. Cold Says:

    My goodness! Sounds like all that heat has affected some peoples’ thinking! Quick! Lower the temp before it is too late!

  3. girltuesday Says:

    dude, i always seem to get hotter during the night–not colder.

  4. brushfire Says:

    +1 what girltuesday says. People are radically insane about heat, it seems.

    I guess I must be totally whacked to go hiking and camping in September, let alone January. ::shrug::

  5. coldhousejournal Says:

    Yeah. I guess the only really safe way to sleep, if the ambient temperature is below 98ºF, is to have a digital rectal thermometer up your butt, with an alarm programmed to go off should your body temp drop below 96.

    If the room temp is 99 or above, I guess you’re safe to sleep. If you can.

  6. brushfire Says:

    I would argue that you are more likely to die from a fire, or carbon monoxide poisoning or other danger from having the heat cranked than of hypothermia. It’s not like you’re sleeping naked with no blankets in a 45 degree room. Sheesh.

  7. coldhousejournal Says:

    I once slept on the ground in a 40º sleeping bag that didn’t have a bottom, during a 30º night after drinking an ice-cold Bud tall-boy. And I’m here to tell about it.

  8. Luke Says:

    I’ve slept in my car on a 20 degree or below night after drinking for hours. Couldn’t tell you why, I think I thought that I would miss work if I went home.

    So guess what, I woke up. And no, dummies, I wasn’t running the heat or the car.

    • Luke Says:

      Also that article says you have no heating system but you still have a woodstove right? Little misleading.

      • coldhousejournal Says:

        Yah, yah– still have the wood stove. One of us would like to try living without that as well, but there are issues of domestic harmony that take precedence.

        Perhaps by “heating system” the reporter meant the usual– something with a furnace, radiators, thermostats, automation. I didn’t read the article carefully. One thing I’ve learned from our brief run of media appearances is that reporters may or may not listen carefully to the details of what you tell them, and then, they may or may not accurately report on what they may or may not have listened to. This here blog is the only place I have full control. Uh, I mean “we have full control”. I don’t have full control anywhere : )

  9. Chrystine Says:

    I also read somewhere an article on living longer. A couple of the things on the list…Lowering calorie intake, and lowering your core temp to 96 degrees at night if you can. Since we are 98.6 normally, I don’t think 2 degrees is a whole lot for a healthy person. That is, if you want to live to a 100 or more. Frankly, I enjoy sleeping in a cold room…which I very seldom get to do while caring for my 88 year-old father, who exclaims there is a draft coming from some where in 90 degree weather. I DO NOT enjoy living in Arizona. 🙂

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