Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when your body temperature drops below 95°F. Major complications can result from this drop in temperature, including death. Hypothermia is particularly dangerous because it affects your ability to think clearly. This can decrease your likelihood of seeking medical help.
The most common symptoms of hypothermia include:
- excessive shivering
- slowed breathing
- slowed speech
Someone who has excessive fatigue, a weak pulse, or who is unconscious may also be hypothermic.
Cold weather is the primary cause of hypothermia. When your body experiences 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.
Age is a risk factor for hypothermia. Infants and older adults have the highest risk of developing hypothermia. This is due to a decreased ability to regulate their body temperature. People in these age groups must dress appropriately for cold weather. You should also regulate air conditioning to help prevent hypothermia at home.
Mental Illness and Dementia
Mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, put you at a greater risk for hypothermia. Dementia, or memory loss that often occurs with communication and comprehension difficulties, can also increase the risk of hypothermia. People with impaired mental judgment may not dress appropriately for cold weather. They also may not realize they’re cold and may stay outside in cold temperatures for too long.
Alcohol and Drug Use
Alcohol or drug use can also impair your judgment about the cold. You’re also more likely to lose consciousness, 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, which occurs when your thyroid gland produces too little hormone
- Parkinson’s disease, which is a nervous system disorder that affects movement
The following can also cause a lack of feeling in your body:
- a stroke
- 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’re taking these types of medications, especially if you frequently work outside in the cold or if you live somewhere that has cold weather.
Where You Live
Where you live can also affect your risk of cold bodily temperatures. Living in areas that frequently experience very low temperatures increases your risk of exposure to extreme cold.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately if you suspect that you or someone you know has hypothermia.
The goal of hypothermia treatment is to increase your body temperature to a normal range. While waiting for emergency care, the affected person or their caregiver can take a few steps to remedy the situation:
Handle the person with care.
Handle the affected person with care. Don’t massage them in an attempt to restore blood flow. Any forceful or excessive movements may cause cardiac arrest. Move or shield them from the cold.
Remove the person’s wet clothing.
Remove the person’s wet clothes. If necessary, cut them off to avoid moving the individual. Cover them with warm blankets, including their face, but not their mouth. If blankets aren’t available, use your body heat to warm them.
If they’re conscious, try to give them warm beverages or soup, which can help to increase body temperature.
Apply warm compresses.
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. Don’t 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. Temperatures that are too hot can burn the skin or cause cardiac arrest.
Monitor the person’s breathing.
Monitor the individual’s breathing. If their breathing seems dangerously slow, or if they lose consciousness, perform CPR if you’re trained to do so.
Severe hypothermia is medically treated with warm fluids, often saline, injected into the veins. A doctor will rewarm the blood, a procedure in which they draw blood, warm it, and then put it back into the body.
Airway rewarming can also be done through masks and nasal tubes. Warming the stomach through a cavity lavage, or stomach pump, in which a warm saltwater solution pumps into the stomach, can also help.
Immediate medical attention is crucial for preventing complications. The longer you wait, the more complications will arise from hypothermia. The complications include:
- frostbite, or tissue death, which is the most common complication that occurs when body tissues freeze
- chilblains, or nerve and blood vessel damage
- gangrene, or tissue destruction
- trench foot, which is nerve and blood vessel destruction from water immersion
Hypothermia can also cause death.
Preventive measures are key to avoiding hypothermia.
The simplest steps you can take involve the clothing you wear. Dress in layers on cold days, even if you don’t think it feels very cold outside. It’s 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. 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’re stuck in the water due to a boating accident, try to stay as dry as possible in or on the boat. Avoid swimming until you see help nearby.
Keeping the body at a normal temperature is important to preventing hypothermia. If your temperature falls below 95°F, you should seek medical help, even if you feel no symptoms of hypothermia.