What is Hypothermia?

Exposure to cold temperatures can cause hypothermia, which is a potentially dangerous drop in body temperature. The risk of cold exposure can happen in the winter months but also exposed to cold temperatures when on a spring hike or capsized on a summer sail.

The normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. With hypothermia, the core temperature drops below 95 degrees. In severe hypothermia, core body temperatures drop to 86 degree or lower. Normally, the activity of the heart and liver produce most body heat. But as core body temperature cools, these organs produce less heat. Low body temperature can slow brain activity, breathing, and heart rate.

Hypothermia symptoms for adults include:

Shivering, which may stop as hypothermia progresses (Shivering is actually a good sign that a person's heat regulation systems are still active.)

  • Slow, shallow breathing

  • Confusion and memory loss

  • Drowsiness or exhaustion

  • Slurred or mumbled speech

  • Loss of coordination, fumbling hands, stumbling steps

  • A slow, weak pulse

  • In severe hypothermia, a person may be unconscious without signs of breathing or a pulse

Hypothermia symptoms for infants include: cold-to-touch, bright red skin and unusually low energy.

Hypothermia is a potentially life-threatening condition that needs emergency medical attention. If medical care isn't immediately available:

  • Remove any wet clothes, hats, gloves, shoes and socks.

  • Protect the person against wind, drafts, and further heat loss with warm, dry clothes and blankets.

  • Move gently to a warm, dry shelter as soon as possible.

Rewarm the person with extra clothing and warm blankets. An electric blanket, hot packs and heating pad can help but can also cause burns to the skin. Use your own body heat if nothing else is available. Offer warm liquids, but avoid alcohol and caffeine, which speed up heat loss. Don't try to give fluids to an unconscious person. 

If the hypothermic person is unconscious, or has no pulse or signs of breathing, call for emergency help right away. CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) should be given immediately.

Because hypothermia causes the body to shut down in ways that mimic death, CPR should be continued, even in the absence of signs of breathing or a pulse, until paramedics arrive or the person is taken to a hospital. In some cases for advanced hypothermia, hospital treatment is required to rewarm the core temperature.

By Christopher Klimek, PA-C, ThedaCare Physicians-New London.