Hypothermia

Overview

Definition

Hypothermia is a body temperature that is lower than normal. It may need immediate medical care.

Causes

Hypothermia occurs when your body loses more heat than it can make. It is often the result of being in very cold temperatures. Other things that can cause very low body temperatures include:

  • Being in 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

The risk of hypothermia is higher in:

  • 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

Some medicine and illnesses can also make it harder for the body to stay warm.

SymptomsandDiagnosis

Symptoms

Symptoms often build over time. It will cause problems with mental and physical ability. Common signs of hypothermia are:

  • Shivering
  • Confusion
  • Clumsiness
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Irritability
  • Hallucinations—sensing things that are not real
  • Slowed breathing
  • Cold, pale skin

Shivering is the body trying to warm itself. It is a sign of severe hypothermia when shivering stops. Confusion and drowsiness may also increase. Without care the heartbeat will slow down, become irregular, and eventually stop.

Heartbeat
Heart EKG
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Diagnosis

Normal body temperature is 98.6°F (37°C). Hypothermia is a body temperature of 95°F (35°C) or lower. Only a special rectal thermometer can confirm that someone has this.

Treatments

Treatment

Quick care is important for someone with hypothermia. Immediate steps include:

  • Get to a warm, sheltered area.
  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • Use an electric blanket to warm the core of the body first. This includes chest, neck, head, and groin.
  • Use skin-to-skin contact under loose blankets or towels if an electric blanket is not around.
  • Give warm beverages to drink. Do not give alcoholic beverages.
  • Get medical care as soon as possible.

A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious. It may be hard to find a pulse. In some cases, people can be saved even though they appear dead. Seek medical care.

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. Stay hydrated.

Older adults, babies, and young children can get hypothermia indoors. Make sure rooms are warm enough and they have proper clothing.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.

RESOURCES

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov 

American Heart Association http://www.heart.org 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

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

The College of Family Physicians of Canada http://www.cfpc.ca 

References

Accidental hypothermia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:  https://www.dynamed.com/condition/accidental-hypothermia/  . Updated February 21, 2017. Accessed February 7, 2020.

Hypothermia. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/cold-injury/hypothermia. Updated April 2016. Accessed February 7, 2020.

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 February 7, 2020.