Hypothermia occurs when more heat is lost than the body can make. In most cases, it occurs after long periods in the cold.
Common causes include:
- Being outside without enough protective clothing in winter
- Falling into cold water of a lake, river, or other body of water
- Wearing wet clothing in windy or cold weather
- Heavy exertion, not drinking enough fluids, or not eating enough in cold weather
Other types of cold injuries that affect the limbs are called peripheral cold injuries. Of these, frostbite is the most common freezing injury. Nonfreezing injuries that occur from exposure to cold wet conditions include trench foot and immersion foot conditions. Chilblains (also known as pernio) are small, itchy or painful lumps on the skin that often occur on the fingers, ears, or toes. They are a type of nonfreezing injury that develops in cold, dry conditions.
You are more likely to develop hypothermia if you are:
- Very old or very young
- Chronically ill, especially people who have heart or blood flow problems
- Overly tired
- Taking certain prescription medicines
- Under the influence of alcohol or drugs
Hypothermia is dangerously low body temperature, below 95°F (35°C).
Follow these precautions:
- DO NOT assume that someone found lying motionless in the cold is already dead.
- DO NOT use direct heat (such as hot water, a heating pad, or a heat lamp) to warm the person.
- DO NOT give the person alcohol.
Take the following steps if you think someone has hypothermia:
- If the person has any symptoms of hypothermia that are present, especially confusion or problems thinking, call 911 right away.
- If the person is unconscious, check airway, breathing, and circulation. If necessary, begin rescue breathing or CPR. If the victim is breathing fewer than 6 breaths per minute, begin rescue breathing.
- Take the person inside to room temperature and cover with warm blankets. If going indoors is not possible, get the person out of the wind and use a blanket to provide insulation from the cold ground. Cover the person's head and neck to help retain body heat.
- Victims of severe hypothermia should be removed from the cold environment with as little exertion as possible. This helps to avoid warmth from being shunted from the person's core to the muscles. In a very mildly hypothermic person, muscular exercise is thought to be safe, however.
- Once inside, remove any wet or tight clothes and replace them with dry clothing.
- Warm the person. If necessary, use your own body heat to aid the warming. Apply warm compresses to the neck, chest wall, and groin. If the person is alert and can easily swallow, give warm, sweetened, nonalcoholic fluids to aid the warming.
- Stay with the person until medical help arrives.
Before you spend time outside in the cold, DO NOT drink alcohol or smoke. Drink plenty of fluids and get enough food and rest.
Wear proper clothing in cold temperatures to protect your body. These include:
- Mittens (not gloves)
- Wind-proof, water-resistant, many-layered clothing
- Two pairs of socks (avoid cotton)
- Scarf and hat that cover the ears (to avoid major heat loss through the top of your head)
- Extremely cold temperatures, especially with high winds
- Wet clothes
- Poor circulation, which is more likely from age, tight clothing or boots, cramped positions, fatigue, certain medicines, smoking, and alcohol
As a person develops hypothermia, they slowly lose the ability to think and move. In fact, they may even be unaware that they need emergency treatment. Someone with hypothermia also is likely to have frostbite.
The symptoms include:
- Weakness and loss of coordination
- Pale and cold skin
- Uncontrollable shivering (although at extremely low body temperatures, shivering may stop)
- Slowed breathing or heart rate
Lethargy, cardiac arrest, shock, and coma can set in without prompt treatment. Hypothermia can be fatal.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call 911 anytime you suspect someone has hypothermia. Give first aid while waiting for emergency help.
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Zafren K, Danzl DF. Accidental hypothermia. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 132.