Simply defined, hypothermia means “below temperature.” Specifically, it is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the body’s core temperature drops dangerously low. It is generally understood to be the result of prolonged exposure to the cold, but given certain circumstances, such as being in frigid waters, death can occur in as few as 15 minutes of exposure.

How Hypothermia Occurs
As we know, normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Mild to moderate hypothermia can occur when the core temperature drops to 95 degrees. At 82 degrees or less, severe hypothermia sets in making the condition a medical emergency. The colder the body becomes, the more the body organs are in danger of severely reduced functionality. For example, the brain will cease to function when core temperature falls to 68 degrees.

The Challenge
Hypothermia is a bit of a contest between the body’s ability to produce sufficient heat to protect vital organs and the conditions that cause greater heat loss. When exposed to cold conditions, the greatest body heat is lost from radiation through the skin. The next greatest loss is through exhalation.

  • The body’s temperature control center, the hypothalamus, kicks in to correct the temperature deficit.
  • Getting the shivers is an involuntary response that stimulates muscle activity to promote heat formation. This is actually a good sign as the body is still responsive and actively working to counteract the cold. When the body cannot produce the shivers, it has reached a critically dangerous drop in body heat.

The Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia
The gradual process of hypothermia is enough to allow it to continue unnoticed. This risk is significantly higher indoors than outside.

  • The person suffering from hypothermia loses certain senses, such as hunger and nausea. Apathy tends to take over followed by a lethargy that makes mobility difficult.
  • Other signs include bright red skin, memory loss, drowsiness, mumbling, shallow breathing, shivering or not shivering at all, a weak pulse, and loss of coordination.
  • The brain performs more slowly as it tries to preserve what little body heat is left causing confusion and slurred speech. Eventually, a person loses consciousness and may lapse into coma.

It is important not to force the person suffering from hypothermia to move around and be active. Under the effects of hypothermia, this can put a severe strain on the heart.

Who is at Greater Risk of Hypothermia
Older adults and younger children are at increased risk of exposure to hypothermia. Even though the symptoms of hypothermia are similar for adults and children, the probability of children not being able to recognize the signs or understand the seriousness of how they are feeling is higher than adults, thus putting them at greater risk. Others include:

  • The mentally ill
  • Those impaired by alcohol or drugs
  • Those who are exposed to the elements for extended periods.

What is Indoor Hypothermia
While most people think hypothermia can happen only if you venture out in ice cold weather, it is important to know that hypothermia can happen to people even inside their homes. It can happen due to a power outage where internal heating/insulation stops working and there’s no alternative arrangements to deal with the situation.

Although it is a rare occurrence, but due to poor economy coupled with high cost of heating fuel, there have been instances of people falling victim to indoor hypothermia, especially elderly or handicapped people.

  • One suggestion to avoid this is to have a prepacked indoor survival kit for winter. In it you may have blankets, nonperishable food and water, a first aid kit, and any necessary medications.
  • Another measure to prevent extreme cold in the home is to ensure the weather stripping and insulation are adequate.

Taking Steps to Counteract Hypothermia
When going out in extremely cold weather conditions, protect yourself by making sure you are dressed appropriately.

  • When outdoors, layered clothing can be helpful; choose fabric for innermost layers that returns heat to the body such as silk, wool or modern polypropylene. This way, multiple layers of heat will remain trapped next to the body and reduce convective heat loss.
  • Make sure you are not overdressed for an event that requires you to be active. Being on your toes, even in cold weather conditions can cause sweating resulting in your innermost layers of clothing getting wet. Wet clothing next to the skin can cause the body temperature to drop significantly.
  • Before venturing out in cold weather, eat foods that help keep the body warm. These foods include avocado, black bean soup, hot chocolate, and coffee.
  • Should there be an incidence of being stranded in the car in extreme cold conditions, bringing all the contents from the trunk into the passenger compartment can help with heat conservation.
  • Some people also wear wool hats and scarves to reduce radiant heat loss from the head and neck.

The key to preventing hypothermia is proper awareness of the gradual signs before they occur. It is a condition that can have serious consequences but with sufficient arrangements for emergencies, encouraging children to remain conscious of the symptoms, keeping yourself covered with the right type of clothing, and indulging in foods and recipes that keep the body temperature to an optimum level, you can stay safe even in the coldest weather.

For more information, visit Careworks.

Author:  Kim Tacconi, PA-C