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Hypothermia

Pronounced: high-po-THER-mee-uh

Definition

Hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature. It is a dangerous condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Causes

Hypothermia occurs when your body loses more heat than it can produce. It is usually the result of being exposed to very cold temperatures. But it can also occur in other circumstances, such as:

  • Being in less cold temperatures with a wind chill
  • Wearing wet clothes
  • Being in a position where you cannot move
  • Being in cold water
  • Certain medical conditions
Risk Factors

People who may have a higher risk of hypothermia include:

  • Babies and young children
  • Older adults
  • Adults under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • People who are mentally ill
  • People who spend long periods of time outdoors

The may also be increased by certain medications and conditions that make it harder for your body to stay warm.

Symptoms

Symptoms of hypothermia usually happen gradually. Over time, mental and physical abilities are lessened. The main symptoms of hypothermia are:

  • Shivering—this increases the muscle activity in your body as your body tries to keep warm
  • Confusion
  • Clumsiness
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Irritability
  • Hallucinations—sensing things that are not real
  • Slowed breathing
  • Cold, pale skin

The situation becomes dangerous when shivering stops and confusion and drowsiness increase. Hypothermia is deadly because it causes the heartbeat to slow down, become irregular, and eventually stop.

Heartbeat

Heart EKG

In hypothermia, the heartbeat slows. If left untreated, the heart will stop beating.

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Diagnosis

Normal body temperature is 98.6˚F (37˚C). Hypothermia is diagnosed when body temperature reaches 95˚F (35˚C) or lower. Only a special rectal thermometer that reads low temperatures can confirm that someone has this condition.

Treatment

It is important to act quickly if you suspect that you or someone else has hypothermia:

  • Get to a warm, sheltered area.
  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • Use an electric blanket to warm the core of the body first—chest, neck, head, and groin.
  • If no electric blanket is available, use skin-to-skin contact under loose blankets or towels.
  • Give warm beverages to drink. Do not give alcoholic beverages.
  • Get medical attention as soon as possible.

A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and appear to have no pulse. Medical attention is important because, in some cases, people can be saved even though they appear dead.

Prevention

If you are planning to spend time outside, take the following precautions:

  • Be aware of the weather.
  • Wear the right clothing:
    • Hat, scarf, and mittens
    • Several layers of loose-fitting clothing
    • Water-resistant coat and shoes
    • Wind-resistant outer layer
  • Go inside when you are shivering or if you are wet.
  • Do not drink alcohol.
  • Eat well-balanced meals and stay hydrated.

Also, take special precautions with older adults, babies, and young children. If rooms are not kept warm enough, they can be affected by hypothermia even if they remain indoors.

RESOURCES:

Hypothermia Prevention, Recognition, and Treatment
http://www.hypothermia.org

National Prevention Information Network
http://www.cdcnpin.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Red Cross
http://www.redcross.ca

Health Canada
http://chp-pcs.gc.ca

References:

Hypothermia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Published August 11, 2014. Accessed September 30, 2014.

Hypothermia: a cold weather hazard. National Institute on Aging website. Available at: http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/hypothermia-cold-weather-hazard. Updated September 12, 2014. Accessed September 30, 2014.

Winter weather FAQs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/faq.asp. Updated November 26, 2013. Accessed September 30, 2014.



Last reviewed August 2014 by Marcin Chwistek, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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