Learn how to treat and prevent hypothermia

This post was last updated on December 22, 2016

Frostbitedangerous falls, and fires from hazardous heat sources are just a few of the perils faced during winter. Among cold-weather injuries, hypothermia is especially dangerous.

What Causes Hypothermia?

Hypothermia begins when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it.

A mere 3.6° F drop in body temperature (below 95° F) requires immediate medical attention. Inadequate protection from freezing temperatures is an obvious cause. However, a wet chill is enough to make your body temperature drop, even if you are in an environment well above freezing.

As the body cools, brain activity slows. The gradual sleepiness and confusion that follow make the onset of hypothermia difficult to detect. Muddled thinking leads to poor judgment. In many cases, victims become irrational and their behaviors worsen the problem.

Older adults, especially those with dementia, and young children are less able to cope with extreme cold. Alcoholism and drug use impair judgment and interfere with the body’s internal heating system. Arthritis, hypothyroidism, Parkinson’s disease, and other medical conditions compound the danger. Narcotics, sedatives, and medications used to treat depression and psychosis also increase the risk of hypothermia.

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Hypothermia Symptoms and Signs

Your brain alerts your body’s defenses against the cold. You shiver, develop goose bumps, and your skin goes pale. As the brain loses the fight, shivering becomes more intense. Extreme fatigue, slurred speech, and memory loss require urgent medical attention. Other symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Dizziness
  • Hunger
  • Increased heart rate
  • Weak pulse
  • Nausea
  • Apathy
  • Shallow breathing

How Cold Does It Have to Be for Hypothermia to Set In?

You may be surprised to learn that hypothermia can occur at any temperature that is lower than normal body temperature. In fact, hypothermia occurs after your core body temperature drops below 95° F.

The body’s response to hypothermia can vary based on a variety of factors, including a person’s age, body fat percentage, and level of alcohol consumption. Exposure to water can quicken the effects of hypothermia, as well.

Severe hypothermia can occur when the body’s core temperature drops below 82° F.

Frostbite vs. Hypothermia

Both frostbite and hypothermia are emergencies that occur due to prolonged exposure to cold conditions — and both could be limb or life-threatening if not quickly addressed.

    • Frostbite is the freezing of a specific body part, such as the fingers or earlobes. Signs of frostbite include skin that is cold to the touch, waxy in texture, or discolored.
    • Hypothermia is a drop in the body’s core temperature because it is unable to warm itself. Signs include shivering, numbness, unconsciousness, and a glassy-eyed stare.

You may be surprised to learn that hypothermia can occur at any temperature that is lower than normal body temperature. In fact, hypothermia occurs after your core body temperature drops below 95° F.

Hypothermia Effects

The effects of hypothermia can range from mild to severe. Keep in mind, those affected by hypothermia are likely unaware they are suffering from the condition.

  • Mild hypothermia symptoms include dizziness, nausea, increased heart rate, and difficulty sleeping.
  • As your body temperature declines, moderate hypothermia symptoms may begin to set in. These include progressive loss of consciousness, significant confusion, slurred speech, and a weak pulse.
  • Signs of severe hypothermia include unconsciousness and shallow or no breathing.

How to Treat Hypothermia

First aid for hypothermia

Begin treatment by calling for emergency assistance and finding warm shelter. If the victim is not breathing, provide CPR until help arrives. Focus on warming the center of the body first. It is dangerous to warm the extremities too quickly. If you suspect hypothermia, call for assistance and:

  • Gently relocate the victim to warm shelter.
  • Remove all wet clothing.
  • Apply heat to the body’s center, from the neck to the pelvis. Avoid using heating pads, hot water bottles, or any localized heat.
  • Use an electric blanket when possible. Even body heat from skin-to-skin contact will help warm the body’s core temperature.
  • Give the victim warm drinks — but not alcohol.

Medical treatment for hypothermia

The specific type of medical treatment you receive for hypothermia depends on the severity of the condition.  Treatments may include:

  • Blood re-warming, in which blood is drawn from the body, re-warmed, and then re-circulated into the system.
  • Irrigation, in which a warm saltwater solution is used to heat specific areas of the body.
  • Warm intravenous fluids may be injected into the veins to warm blood.

What is re-warming shock?

When a person with hypothermia is warmed, they may experience a drop in blood pressure, known as re-warming shock. The exact cause of this condition is not known.

How to Prevent Hypothermia

Prevention is the best defense against hypothermia, so dress for the weather. Layered clothing, headgear, gloves, and well-insulated shoes and socks are essential when temperatures drop below freezing. Be careful to avoid sweating when shoveling snow or engaging in other activities in the cold. Stock your car with plenty of blankets, food, water, and spare medications.

Preparation and caution will keep the dangers of winter at bay.

About Trauma & Emergency Medicine

Emergencies can happen in the blink of an eye or in a heartbeat. And when they do, minutes matter. UPMC’s Emergency Medicine and Trauma Care services are ready to provide world-class care, no matter how serious your emergency. All our Emergency Departments have a full-time staff of emergency specialists at the ready 24 hours a day. We use advanced technology to diagnose and treat your condition and coordinate with your doctor to provide the best care possible. We also have specialized trauma care at several of our hospitals. If you or a loved one is experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or visit the nearest Emergency Department.