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Out in the Cold? Here's What to Do to Beat Hypothermia

Out in the Cold? Here's What to Do to Beat Hypothermia

What is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a medical condition where the body temperature falls below the standard body temperature of 37°C, to 35°C and below. This occurs when the body fails to produce heat, which can cause the heart and other organs to malfunction. It includes brain malfunction, resulting in immobility, and inability to think well. If left untreated, it may lead to cardiac arrest, kidney failure, liver damage, or even death.

Causes of Hypothermia

Hypothermia is caused by long exposure to cold weather or a cold place. It starts developing due to heat loss from a person’s skin, and through exhaling. When in a cold place, wind and moisture conditions contribute to the speed of heat being lost on the skin surface.

If the body feels cold, its first defense is shivering. This act tends to produce heat coming from the muscles. However, the brain, heart rate, and breathing will start functioning more slowly if the cold reaches the core body.

Types of Hypothermia

These are the types of hypothermia, categorized by their causes:

Acute Hypothermia

This occurs when the body temperature suddenly drops, due to getting wet in cold water and prolonged exposure to the cold.

Chronic Hypothermia

This refers to body temperature remaining low for a very long time. It occurs when there is no proper access to heat or appropriate clothing against cold.

Exhaustion Hypothermia

This occurs when the body fails to produce heat due to fatigue. It commonly affects people with health conditions and disorders.

Perioperative Hypothermia

This develops when the body fails to maintain the standard body temperature after surgery due to the prescribed anesthesia.

Symptoms

Hypothermia is difficult to recognize at the early stage as it builds up slowly. The symptoms for the different stages of hypothermia include the following:

Mild (32 to 35°C)

  • Shivering and goosebumps
  • Stuttering when speaking
  • Starts getting confused, memory problems
  • Skin color becomes bluish
  • Rapid breathing and heart rate, weak pulse
  • Heavy urination

Moderate (28 to 32°C)

  • No shivering
  • Sleepiness
  • Hallucinations
  • Blood pressure drops
  • Abnormal heartbeat rate

Severe (below 28°C)

  • The body becomes stiff, unable to move
  • Becoming unconscious
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Breathing stops
  • Heart stops beating

Other symptoms include:

  • Pale skin
  • Puffy face
  • Cold hands and feet

Risk Factors

The risk factors, mostly situational, include the following:

  • Age. Older people tend to have slower body temperature regulation. They may have less of a sense of being cold, or are not immediately able to tell whether they are cold or not. On the other hand, children at a young age can lose body heat faster than adults. They tend to enjoy cool temperatures and may ignore wearing proper clothing.
  • Mental Problems. People with mental illness, such as dementia, are at risk. They may go outside without wearing appropriate clothes and get lost while wandering.
  • Alcohol and Drug Use. An alcoholic drink may contribute to a warm feeling inside the body, but it tends to expand the blood vessels, causing rapid heat loss through the skin. The use of alcohol and drugs can also affect decisions to wear appropriate clothes for cold weather.
  • Homelessness. People who do not have a home, as well as hikers or hunters out in the wild, are also at risk due to inadequate clothing and access to heat.
  • Medications. These include antidepressants, antipsychotics, and narcotic pain medications.
  • Medical conditions. Some conditions that affect body temperature regulation, include diabetes, hypothyroidism, anorexia nervosa, and stroke.

Basic First Aid Intervention: What to Do in Emergency Situations

Diagnosis

The initial diagnostic test for hypothermia is a body temperature test and physical examination to observe symptoms. However, some doctors include additional tests, such as monitoring heartbeat, blood testing, chest x-ray, computed tomography scan, and magnetic resonance imaging, to look out for injuries and other health problems.

Prevention

Most cases of hypothermia are preventable by the following measures:

  • Avoid staying in a cold place for a long time.
  • Wear appropriate clothing that protects against the cold.
  • Find a shelter or shed with access to heat when raining, or in cold winds, especially while hiking, hunting, or homeless.
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages and drug use.

Treatments

When encountering someone with hypothermia, call for medical attention. While waiting, here are first aid guidelines that can help:

  • Move the person to a warm place, then provide warm clothing.
  • Cover the person with blankets or a heating pad.
  • Give skin-to-skin contact to the person.
  • Provide warm drinks, like water, tea, or coffee.
  • Monitor the person’s heartbeat, pulse, and breathing.
  • Begin CPR if the person is unconscious or has a weak pulse.

Medical treatments may be applied, depending on the stage of hypothermia. Some of these include:

  • Blood rewarming. This uses a hemodialysis machine, wherein the blood undergoes withdrawal to get warm and is returned to circulation.
  • Intravenous fluids. A warm saltwater solution helps increase body temperature through a direct injection in the vein.
  • Airway rewarming. Humidified oxygen will warm airways through a nasal tube or mask.
  • Irrigation. A warm solution is used to heat up particular body parts through catheters. It is usually for the lungs and abdominal cavity.

Key Takeaway

Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature reaches below 35°C. It is an emergency that needs immediate medical attention. If left untreated at an early stage, it can cause organs to malfunction and affect body circulation. There are preventive measures and first aid guidelines available to prevent the development or worsening of hypothermia.

Learn more about First Aid here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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Written by Shienna Santelices Updated May 07
Fact Checked by Hello Doctor Medical Panel
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