Hypothermia

By:    Published: December 13, 2011

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One of the major threats that come with exposure to cold temperatures is hypothermia. This is a serious condition that is often mistaken by people who don’t know which symptoms to look for. There are also several misconceptions about hypothermia that cause some people to overlook it. Fortunately, hypothermia can be easily treated when it is detected in a timely manner.

Definition

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat at such a rapid rate that the body cannot produce enough heat to counteract it. This effectively lowers a person’s core body temperature. Under normal conditions, body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia occurs once the body’s temperature has dropped to below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once a person’s body temperature drops to 95 F or below, certain systems in the body begin to experience problems. The heart and nervous system are often not able to function properly in this condition. Because of the serious and potentially fatal complications of these results, hypothermia is considered an emergency medical condition that requires immediate treatment.

Symptoms

There are many key signs and symptoms associated with hypothermia, including:

  • Shivering, especially when it is constant
  • Lack of coordination and stumbling while walking
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Confusion, difficulty thinking and poor decision making
  • Drowsiness and low energy levels
  • Lack of concern about one’s condition
  • Loss of consciousness, whether momentary or complete
  • Weak pulse
  • Slow, shallow breathing

In addition to these symptoms, there are also specific signs that are associated with infants in particular:

  • Bright red, cold skin
  • Very low energy

If you are unsure if a person is experiencing hypothermia, one test you can do is to take their temperature. If the person’s body temperature is at or below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, seek medical attention immediately. Regardless, the symptoms above warrant an emergency visit to the doctor even without checking a person’s temperature first.

Causes And Risk Factors

The most common cause of hypothermia is prolonged exposure to cold weather. In addition, wearing clothes that aren’t warm enough or clothes getting wet while a person is out in the cold may also trigger this condition. Individuals will also lose body heat faster if their skin is exposed or if they are in direct contact with a cold surface.

One common misconception about hypothermia is that is only occurs in freezing temperatures. In reality, hypothermia can occur in any cool temperature, even above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, if a person becomes chilled from being wet. This could occur due to falling into a body of water, getting very sweaty or going out in the rain.

In addition, people who suffer from certain risk factors – such as being elderly – may even get hypothermia indoors. This could occur if the temperature is too low, either from inadequate heating or excessive air conditioning. These temperatures may be tolerable to younger or healthier individuals and still lead to hypothermia for at-risk individuals. The following are some of the key risk factors for hypothermia:

  • Old age: People age 65 and older are prone to hypothermia because their bodies are generally less capable of regulate their internal temperature. Limited mobility may also cause them to get cold faster or make it more difficult for them to get to a warmer area.
  • Young age: Children lose body heat at a faster rate than adults do. In addition, they are more likely to be distracted to the point of forgetting about temperature and whether they need to put on more layers of clothing. Infants are particularly prone because they have limited abilities when it comes to generating body heat.
  • Health issues: People who have certain health conditions may not be able to generate body heat as easily. Some of these conditions include spinal cord injuries, burns, Parkinson’s disease and stroke.
  • Medications: Some drugs, including certain antidepressants, sedatives and antipsychotics, affect the body’s ability to regulate internal temperature.
  • Substance use: When a person drinks alcohol or uses recreational drugs, they may feel warmer than they actually are. In addition, their altered sensory capabilities may cause them to overlook the fact that they are cold.
  • Mental health: Those with mental illnesses or other mental problems may have lapses in judgment when it comes to how long to stay outside, appropriate clothing to wear for the weather or where to find a warmer area.

Prevention

There are several steps you can take to prevent hypothermia. The most important is to stay warm and dry in cold temperatures. That means wearing lots of layers of clothing, including a hat, gloves and scarf. In addition, avoid getting wet either through exposure to water or excessive sweating. If you do become wet, change into dry clothes as soon as possible.

Be careful when doing certain activities in cold weather. Bring emergency supplies when driving your car in case you get stranded. If you decide to drink alcohol, use caution and dress in weather-appropriate clothing even if you feel warm. If you are going to be on or near water in cool or cold weather, wear a life jacket and do not go alone if possible.

Treatment

The first step anyone should take for hypothermia is getting immediate medical attention. However, if a person must wait for an ambulance to arrive or to get to a hospital, the following steps should be taken with the victim:

  • Get into a warm area, preferably indoors.
  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • Focus on warming the center of the body first, including the chest, neck, head and groin. Use skin-to-skin contact under dry blankets, clothing or towels. If available, use an electric blanket.
  • Provide warm beverages, such as coffee or tea, if available. Do not give the victim alcohol.
  • Even if the victim starts to feel warmer, keep them wrapped in dry clothing or blankets until medical attention arrives.

In severe cases of hypothermia, the victim may become unconscious. If this happens, administer CPR until medical help arrives.

Sources:

  • Mayo Clinic
  • CDC
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