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by Martin JJ

Definition

Hypothermia is when a person's body is much colder than normal. A person may need medical care right away.

Causes

Hypothermia happens when your body loses more heat than it can make. Spending time in very cold places is a common cause. Other things that can cause someone's body to get colder are:

  • Wearing wet clothes
  • Being in a spot where you cannot move
  • Being in cold water
  • Taking some medicines

Some health problems can cause hypothermia, such as:

  • Stroke
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Anorexia
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Severe burns
  • Malnutrition
  • Risk Factors

    The risk of hypothermia is higher in:

    • Babies and young children
    • Older adults
    • People who have had too much alcohol or taken drugs
    • People who have mental health problems
    • People who spend a lot of time outside

    People with the health problems listed above are also at higher risk for getting hypothermia.

    Symptoms

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

    • Shivering
    • Confusion or memory loss
    • Clumsiness
    • Slurred speech
    • Drowsiness
    • Irritability
    • Hallucinations—seeing or hearing things that others do not
    • Slowed breathing
    • Cold, pale skin

    Shivering is the body trying to warm itself. It is a sign of severe hypothermia when shivering stops. A person may get more confused and tired. Without care the heartbeat will slow down, become irregular, and then stop.

    Heartbeat
    Heart EKG
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

    Diagnosis

    The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. A physical exam may be done. The doctor may ask if the person has been somewhere cold for a long time. Their temperature will be taken. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius). Hypothermia is a body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) or lower.

    Treatment

    Quick care is vital for someone with hypothermia. Things that can be done right away are:

    • Get them to a warm, sheltered area.
    • Remove any wet clothing.
    • Use an electric blanket to warm their chest, neck, head, and groin first.
    • Use skin-to-skin contact under loose blankets or towels if there is no electric blanket around.
    • Give warm beverages to drink. Do not give them alcohol to drink.
    • Get medical care as soon as possible.

    A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious. It may be hard to find a pulse. Some people can be saved even though they may look dead. Call for medical help right away.

    Prevention

    When going outside in cold weather:

    • Know what the weather will be.
    • Wear the right clothing:
      • Hat, scarf, and mittens
      • Layers of loose-fitting clothing
      • Shoes that can keep out water
      • A coat that can keep out wind and water
    • 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 they are wearing clothes to keep them warm. Also make sure rooms are warm enough.

    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. Accessed May 16, 2022.

    Hypothermia. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/cold-injury/hypothermia. Accessed May 16, 2022.

    Paal, P., Pasquier, M., et al. Accidental hypothermia: 2021 update. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2022; 19(1): 501.

    Prevent hypothermia & frostbite. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe/hypothermia.html. Accessed May 16, 2022.

    Revision Information

    • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD
    • Review Date: 03/2022
    • Update Date: 05/16/2022