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Hypothermia - Types, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatments

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Do you know what will happen when your body loses more heat than it can produce and is an emergency condition? Read below to know more about it.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Sugreev Singh

Published At March 3, 2022
Reviewed AtAugust 29, 2023

Introduction:

Hypothermia is a condition in which the body temperatures are abnormally low. It is dangerous because it affects the brain making the person unable to think clearly. The person will not know what is happening and will not be able to do anything about it. According to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are a number of people dying from this condition. Learn more about hypothermia, its signs and symptoms, and how to deal with it in the following article.

What Is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is an abnormal and dangerous fall in the body temperatures below the normal levels. Usually, the stable body temperature is around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Celsius. And when the environment is too cold or if the body cannot produce sufficient heat to counter the lost heat, the core temperatures can eventually drop, resulting in a condition called hypothermia.

Hypothalamus is the part of the brain that manages and controls body temperatures. When the hypothalamus notices a change in the body temperature, it initiates the body to produce more heat, and if the environment gets colder, then the body starts to shiver, which increases the muscle activity generating more heat. So when heat is lost more quickly than it can make, the core temperature drops.

When the body temperature drops, the body tries to stop the blood flow to the skin so that the amount of heat loss is reduced. Rather it directs the blood flow to the vital organs like the heart, brain, and kidneys. As the brain and heart are very sensitive to low temperatures, the electrical activity starts to slow down, resulting in organ failure.

What Causes Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposure to cold weather conditions or cold water. When exposed to cold, the body loses heat quicker than it can produce it. And being exposed to cold weather conditions for prolonged periods of time can result in hypothermia.

The other conditions that can contribute to hypothermia are:

  • Staying outdoors in the cold for too long.

  • Wearing wet clothes for prolonged periods of time.

  • Living in an environment that is too cold or in a house.

What Are the Different Stages of Hypothermia?

There are three different stages through which hypothermia progresses. They are:

  • Mild hypothermia.

  • Moderate hypothermia.

  • Severe hypothermia.

Mild hypothermia is characterized by:

  • Shivering.

  • High blood pressure.

  • Fatigue.

  • Lack of coordination.

  • Irregular and fast heart rate and breathing.

Moderate hypothermia is characterized by:

  • Lower levels of consciousness.

  • Low blood pressure.

  • Slow heart rate.

  • Slow breathing.

  • Decrease in the reflexes.

Severe hypothermia is characterized by:

Who Are More Likely At a Higher Risk of Developing Hypothermia?

The people who are at an increased risk of developing hypothermia are:

  • Children who sleep in cold environments.

  • Elderly people who do not have adequate food, clothes, or heat.

  • People who stay long outdoors like the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.

  • People who consume illicit drugs or excessive alcohol.

What Are the Symptoms of Hypothermia?

The most commonly experienced symptoms of hypothermia are different in the case of adults and for children:

For Adults:

  • Shivering.

  • Fatigue or feeling very tired.

  • Confusion.

  • Drowsiness.

  • Loss of memory.

  • Slurred speech.

For Children:

  • Cold skin.

  • Skin can be bright red.

Usually, people with hypothermia may not be aware of their condition as confusion is associated with hypothermia. So it prevents self-awareness.

How Is Hypothermia Diagnosed?

Hypothermia is typically diagnosed with the symptoms. The doctor also determines the body temperature using a thermometer. The thermometer records and detects the low core body temperature, and the diagnosis is confirmed.

How Is Hypothermia Treated?

Hypothermia is an emergency condition, so once the symptoms are noticed, immediate medical consultation is needed. And if the patient is in a situation where they cannot get immediate medical help, follow these ways:

1) Take the patient to a warm room or warm shelter.

2) If the patient is wearing any wet clothes, remove them immediately.

3) Provide them with some warm drinks that can help them to increase their body temperatures. Avoid giving alcoholic drinks. And do not give beverages to the patient if he or she is unconscious.

4) Try to warm the person’s body by using thick clothes or a blanket.

5) Once the person is feeling better and body temperature has increased, then try to keep the person warm and dry.

6) Try to get medical help as soon as possible.

In severe cases of hypothermia where the patient is totally unconscious and may not seem to be breathing or if the patient does not seem to have a pulse, then the patient needs to be handled gently, and emergency medical attention should be provided.

Try to perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) until the person responds or medical aid is made available.

Medical Treatment:

Based on the severity and intensity of hypothermia, any of the following treatment options will be performed:

  • Passive rewarming.

  • Blood rewarming.

  • Warm intravenous fluids.

  • Airway rewarming.

Passive Rewarming:

This method is done in patients with mild hypothermia. The patient is just covered with warm heated blankets and given warm drinks.

Blood Rewarming:

Blood is withdrawn from the body and warmed, and then again recirculated into the body by using a hemodialysis machine or a heart bypass machine.

Warm Intravenous Fluids:

A warm intravenous solution of salt water is infused into the vein to warm the blood.

Airway Rewarming:

Humidified oxygen is administered using a mask or through a nasal tube to warm the airways, which will gradually increase the body temperature.

How Can Hypothermia Be Prevented?

Hypothermia can be prevented in the following ways:

When Working Outdoor For Prolonged Period of Time:

1) Check for the weather conditions beforehand and get prepared accordingly.

2) Try multiple layers of clothing or clothes that have multiple layers. If the innermost layers are made of wool or silk, it can give better protection.

3) Wear a hat or woolen scarf on the head.

4) Try to take a sufficient amount of calories so when there is additional fat under the skin, then it can provide protection during the cold weather conditions.

5) Once you start to experience any of the signs or symptoms of hypothermia, try to move to a warmer place immediately and try to keep yourself warm. Take some warm drinks that can increase your body temperature.

When At Home:

You can prevent hypothermia when you are at home by following these ways:

  1. Try to heat the room by using a room heater.

  2. Wear thick and warm clothes.

  3. Try to insulate your home by making modifications and improvements in the building or laying some thick rugs or towels on the floor.

  4. If you are living alone, ask someone to check on you to see if you are fine.

How To Be Prepared When Stuck In a Motor Vehicle?

People should keep a winter survival kit in the car to protect themselves from hypothermia. The winter survival kit should contain the following:

  • First aid kit.

  • Blankets.

  • Nonperishable food.

  • Water.

  • Required medications.

Try to keep the vehicle running for 10 minutes every hour and ensure that the snow does not cover the exhaust pipe.

What Are the Complications of Hypothermia?

Some of the complications of hypothermia are:

Conclusion:

Hypothermia is an emergency and dangerous condition that can gradually affect the patient’s self-awareness. So immediate medical attention and help are needed once the signs and symptoms of hypothermia are noticed.

Frequently Asked Questions

1.

What Happens in the Case of Hypothermia?

Prolonged exposures to very cold temperatures make the body lose heat faster. Long exposures will eventually use up stored energy in the body, which can result in lower body temperature. Moreover, too low a body temperature affects the brain, making the affected individual incapable of thinking clearly or moving well. 

2.

At What Temperature Can a Person Get Hypothermia?

A person's core body temperature below or equal to 96 degrees Fahrenheit (F) for a prolonged period can cause hypothermia (low body temperature). Even mildly cool residences ranging from 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit may trigger hypothermia in older people.

3.

Can Hypothermia Causes Death?

Deaths because of hypothermia are usually accidental and result from exposure to extreme environmental temperatures. Frequently these individuals are elderly, intoxicated, or exposed to severe cold temperatures.

4.

How Long Does Hypothermia Last?

The time for developing and duration of hypothermia depends profoundly on the exposed temperature and the overall health condition of the individuals. However, in the case of periodic hypothermia, the affected person typically develops lethargy, hypothermia, and worsening of preceding neurologic deficits, which can last for days to weeks. 

5.

Is Hypothermia a Painful Condition?

Mild hypothermia is often not painful, but in the case of severe hypothermia, the resultant tissue death and frostbites in the body's extremities can be very painful. Cold injuries can also increase pain.

6.

Can Hypothermia Be Treated at Home?

If someone has mild hypothermia, they can be treated at home by heating the room, using warm or heated blankets and clothing, and having hot drinks like soups and beverages. Get the individual medical attention, if available, as soon as possible. An individual may become unconscious; in this case, try to get emergency assistance immediately. Perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and keep warming the person while executing CPR.

7.

What Are the Risk Characteristics for Hypothermia?

- Older individuals with inadequate food, clothing, or heating.
- Small babies are left unsupervised, sleeping in cold rooms.
- People, such as the homeless, hikers, and hunters, remain outdoors for long periods.
- People with chronic alcohol or illicit drug abuse.

8.

Which Temperature Is Excessively Cold for Humans?

The early stage of hypothermia can occur at 35° to 32.8°Celsius which is 95° to 91°Fahreinheit temperatures in healthy adults. An intermediate stage of hypothermia can occur at 32.2° to 24°Celsius is 90° to 75°Fahreinheit temperature, and temperature below 24°Celsius or 75°Fahreinheit can cause severe hypothermia for a healthy adult.

9.

How to Warm Up Someone With Hypothermia?

Removing any wet clothes if wearing, wrapping the person with warm blankets, giving them hot drinks such as hot soup, and increasing room heater temperature. In the case of severe hypothermia, prompt medical management is essential.

10.

What Is the Final Stage of Hypothermia?

The final stage of hypothermia can occur at 24°Celsius or 75°Fahreinheit temperature in healthy adults, small children, and older people, even at a higher temperature than that. Eventually, heat loss overwhelms the body during the final stage, and shivering ceases. This results in multiple organ systems, including metabolic, neurologic, and cardiac stopping functioning and ultimately leading to death.

11.

How to Raise the Body Temperature?

First, attention should be given to increasing the person's temperature in case of hypothermia. This can be done by removing wet clothing and then wrapping up the person in a warm blanket or an electrically heated blanket. Attention should be given to wrapping all extremities, including hands, legs, and ears. Temperature can be raised internally by providing hot drinks such as hot soup or hot water.

12.

Can Hypothermia Arise Suddenly?

Yes, acute hypothermia can occur with immersion in very cold water or exposure to extremely cold weather, such as temperatures below - 40 degrees Celsius, which can cause hypothermia within a few minutes.

13.

Can a Person Get Hypothermia While Sleeping?

Many studies established that sleep decreases body temperature through various mechanisms, including lowering metabolic rate. Thus sleeping in a very cold environment without adequate clothing and warmer can increase the chances of hypothermia.

14.

Who Is at More Risk of Getting Hyperthermia?

- Infants. 
- The elderly, particularly those having chronic medical conditions.
- Athletes and individuals doing strenuous outdoor activities and work.
- Alcohol abuse.
- Being overweight or underweight.
- Dehydration.
- Heart, lung, and kidney diseases.

15.

How Is Cold Unhealthy?

During exposure to an extremely cold environment, the body generates heat by using energy stores to keep the body warm enough for functioning; when it fails to do so, hypothermia occurs, which has destructive outcomes on the function of multiple organs, such as the heart, brain, kidney, blood clotting, and, possibly, the immune system. Overall, hypothermia increases morbidity and mortality in affected individuals.
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Dr. Sugreev Singh
Dr. Sugreev Singh

Internal Medicine

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hypothermia
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