What Is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Major complications can result from this drop in temperature, including death. Hypothermia is particularly dangerous because it affects your ability to think clearly, which may decrease your odds of seeking medical help.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
The most common signs of hypothermia include:
- excessive shivering
- slowed breathing and speech
- excessive fatigue
- weak pulse
Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If you suspect that you or a loved one has this condition, call 911 immediately.
Causes of Hypothermia
Cold weather is the primary culprit in hypothermia cases. When your body is exposed to extremely cold temperatures, it loses heat more quickly than it can produce it. Staying in cold water too long can also cause these effects.
The inability to produce adequate body heat is extremely dangerous; your body temperature can drop quickly and significantly.
Exposure to colder-than-normal temperatures can also cause hypothermia. For example, if you step into an extremely cold, air-conditioned room immediately after being outside, you risk losing too much body heat in a short period of time.
Risk Factors for Hypothermia
Infants and the elderly are at the highest risk for developing hypothermia. This is due to a decreased ability to regulate their body temperatures. Individuals in these age groups must be dressed appropriately for cold weather. Air conditioning must also be regulated to help prevent hypothermia at home.
Mental Illness and Dementia
Mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and dementia (memory loss that is often coupled with communication and comprehension difficulties) put an individual at a greater risk for hypothermia. With impaired mental judgment, individuals may not think to dress appropriately for cold weather. They also may not realize they are cold and may stay outside in cold temperatures for too long.
Alcohol and Drug Use
Alcohol or drug use can also impair an individual’s judgment toward the cold. These individuals are also more likely to pass out, which can occur outside in dangerously cold weather. Alcohol is especially dangerous because it gives the false impression of warming the insides. In reality, it causes the blood vessels to expand and the skin to lose more heat.
Other Medical Conditions
Certain medical conditions can affect the body’s ability to maintain an adequate temperature or to feel cold. These conditions include:
- hypothyroidism (when your thyroid gland produces too little hormone)
- Parkinson’s disease (a nervous system disorder that affects movement; tremors are a common symptom)
- spinal cord injuries
Some antidepressants, sedatives, and antipsychotic medications can affect your body’s ability to regulate its temperature. Talk to your doctor if you are taking these types of medications, especially if you frequently work outside in the cold or if you live in a cold-weather location.
Where You Live
Where you live can also affect your risk of cold bodily temperatures. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Alaska experienced the highest rate of hypothermia-related deaths between 1999 and 2002. Still, this does not mean that living in the Southern United States puts you out of harm’s way. New Mexico and Mississippi also experienced hypothermia-related deaths within the same time frame (CDC).
Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If you suspect that you or someone you know has hypothermia, call 911 immediately.
The goal of hypothermia treatment is to increase an individual’s body temperature to a normal range. While waiting for emergency care, the affected individual or his or her caregiver should do the following:
- Handle the affected individual with care. Do not massage him or her in an attempt to restore blood flow. Any forceful or excessive movements may cause cardiac arrest.
- Move or shield the individual from the cold.
- Remove the individual’s wet clothes. If necessary, cut them off to avoid moving the individual.
- Cover the individual with warm blankets, including his or her face, but not the mouth. If blankets are not available, use your body heat to warm the individual.
- If the individual is conscious, try to give him or her warm beverages and/or soup, which can help to increase body temperature.
- Apply warm (not hot), dry compresses to the individual, such as a warmed water bottle or a warmed towel. Only apply the compresses to the chest, neck, or groin. Do not apply compresses to the arms or legs, and do not use a heating pad or heat lamp. Applying a compress to these areas will push cold blood back toward the heart, lungs, and brain, which could be fatal. Too-hot temperatures can burn the skin or cause cardiac arrest.
- Monitor the individual’s breathing. If his or her breathing seems dangerously slow, or if the individual loses consciousness, perform CPR (if you are trained to do so).
Severe hypothermia is medically treated with:
- warm fluids, often saltwater, injected into the veins
- blood rewarming, in which blood is drawn, warmed, and then put back into the body
- airway rewarming through masks and nasal tubes
- warming the stomach through a cavity lavage (stomach pump), in which a warm saltwater solution is pumped into the stomach
Complications of Hypothermia
Immediate medical attention is crucial for preventing complications. The longer you wait, the more complications will arise from hypothermia. Frostbite (tissue death) is the most common complication, which occurs when body tissues freeze. Other complications include:
- chilblains (nerve and blood vessel damage)
- gangrene (tissue destruction)
- trench foot (nerve and blood vessel destruction from water immersion)
Preventive measures are key to stop hypothermia from occurring. The simplest steps you can take involve the clothing you wear. Dress in layers on cold days, even if you do not think it feels very cold outside. It is easier to remove clothing than it is to battle hypothermia. Cover all body parts, and wear hats, gloves, and scarves during the winter. Also, take care when exercising outdoors on cold days because sweat can cool you down and make your body more susceptible to hypothermia.
Staying dry is also important. Avoid swimming for long periods and make sure that you wear water-repellant clothing in rain and snow. If you are stuck in the water due to a boating accident, try to stay as dry as possible in or on the boat and avoid swimming until you see help nearby.
Keeping the body at a normal temperature is important to prevent hypothermia. If your temperature falls below 95° F, you should seek medical help, even if you feel no symptoms of hypothermia.