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Here is everything you need to know about hypothermia | by heidi


 


Hypothermia is a dangerous condition involving low body temperature. Symptoms such as shivering, pale skin, and fast heart rate indicate a person’s core body temperature has dropped below normal.



Keep reading to learn more about the treatment, symptoms, prevention, diagnosis, and causes of hypothermia.


What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature of below 95°F (35°C)Trusted Source. This happens when a person experiences cold temperatures for a prolonged period.


While normal metabolic processes in the body generate heat, wintry weather can cause the body to lose more heat than it generates. When this occurs, the core temperature drops.


A structure in the brain called the hypothalamus regulates body temperature. FindingsTrusted Source show that when someone is exposed to cold, the hypothalamus raises body temperature through measures such as increasing muscle tone and shivering.


However, if exposure to cold continues, it will eventually overwhelm the body, and shivering will stop. At this point, multiple organs may stop functioning, which ultimately leads to death. This is why hypothermia is an extremely dangerous condition.


Symptoms in stages

Symptoms in babies differ from symptoms in adults, note the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source. Babies may have very low energy and bright red, cold skin.



Mild hypothermia

Symptoms in this stage include:


body temperature of 90–95°F (32–35°C)

tiredness

shivering

hunger

nausea

skin that is dry and paler than usual

fast heart rate

increased muscle tone

increased blood pressure

decline in memory, judgment, and thinking ability

unclear speech

loss of control of body movements

frequent urination

Moderate hypothermia

Typically, shivering stops between 86–90°F (30–32°C). Other symptoms of moderate hypothermia include:


body temperature of 82–90°F (28–32°C)

continued decline in thinking ability

lethargy

enlarged and less responsive pupils

low blood pressure

slow heart rate

slow breathing rate

paradoxical undressing, or removal of clothes

increased susceptibility to abnormal heart rhythms

Severe hypothermia

Infographic by Yaja Mulcare

Symptoms of this stage include:


body temperature of less than 82°F (28°C)

continued decline in blood flow to the brain, leading to unresponsiveness

continued decline in blood pressure, heart rate, and heart output

increased susceptibility to abnormal heart rhythms

congestion in lungs

production of a very small amount of urine

loss of reflexes

ultimately, failure of heart and lung function

Treatment

Treatment depends on the degree of hypothermia, but the aim is to make the person warmer. It involves first aid and clinical treatment.


First aid


moving the person to a warm, dry place, if possible, or sheltering them from the elements

taking off any wet clothing

covering the person with an electric blanket, if available, or dry layers of towels, clothing, or blankets

making skin-to-skin contact with another individual

having the person drink a warm beverage, excluding alcohol, if they are not unconscious

avoiding moving or jostling the person, as doing so can trigger a fatal heart rhythm abnormality

If someone has severe hypothermia, they may be unconscious. They may also appear not to have a pulse or be breathing. If this occurs, a bystander should perform CPR and continue it until help arrives. Sometimes people with hypothermia who appear to be dead can resuscitate.


Clinical treatment


Passive external rewarming: This entails removing the person’s wet clothing and covering them with layers of insulation.

Active external rewarming: This involves methods such as water immersion and using a heating unit to transfer heat through convection. However, water immersion poses the danger of triggering collapse of the heart and blood vessels.

Active core rewarming: This involves irrigating body cavities with warm, intravenous fluids. Other options include the use of warming that originates from outside the body, such as hemodialysis, which is filtering of the blood with a machine that acts as an artificial kidney.

Prevention


Check the weather forecast before going outdoors, and dress appropriately.

Avoid drinking alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, as they increase heat loss.

Wear multiple layers of clothing, including a hat, scarf, and gloves.

Set the home thermostat to 68°F (20°C) or higher, and dress warmly.

Keep space heaters, which are an acceptable indoor heat source, away from flammable objects and ensure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors work.

Place rolled towels underneath home doors to prevent drafts.

Check on elderly neighbors, and make sure they have enough heat and food.

Dress babies warmly, and limit their exposure to cold temperatures.

In winter, unexpected events can occur that pose a danger of hypothermia, such as home power outages and running out of gas while driving. To offset the risk of these events, experts recommend keeping winter survival kits at home and in the car.


Certain medications, specifically psychiatric medicationsTrusted Source, may increase a person’s risk of hypothermia. An individual may consider asking their doctor or pharmacist whether their medication could increase their risk of hypothermia.


Home survival kits may include:


extra food and water

an emergency heating source

a fire extinguisher and smoke detector

Car survival kits may include:


sleeping bags and blankets

high calorie, nonperishable food

extra clothing to keep dry

water container

waterproof matches

Diagnosis

When doctors examine a person, the key symptoms and signs below indicate a diagnosis of hypothermia:


body temperature below 95°F (35°C)

shivering

impaired mental state

frostbite, which is injury to body tissues resulting from freezing

Other telltale symptoms inlude:


frequent urination

fast heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure in mild hypothermia

slow heart rate, slow breathing, and low blood pressure in moderate hypothermia

a long pause in breathing or coma in severe hypothermia


blood sugar

electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium

substances that show kidney function

Doctors may order an electrocardiogram (ECG) to assess heart function. They may also use imaging tests, such as X-rays, to assess the effects of a stroke or trauma that led to prolonged exposure to cold. Additionally, a doctor may use other lab studies and tests to detect potential complications and underlying causes of hypothermia.


Causes

Exposure to cold temperatures or falling into cold water can cause hypothermia.




extremes of age

low blood sugar

malnutrition

skin disorders, such as burns and psoriasis

stroke

endocrine disorders, such as hypothyroidism and adrenal insufficiency, which are conditions affecting parts of the body that produce hormones

substance use disorder

neurodegenerative disorders, such as dementia

dilated blood vessels due to conditions such as spinal cord injuries

sepsis, which is an extreme response to infection


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