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Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Major complications can result from this drop in temperature, including death. Hypothermia is particularly dangerous because it affects your ability to think clearly, which may decrease your odds of seeking medical help.
The most common signs of hypothermia include:
Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If you suspect that you or a loved one has this condition, call 911 immediately.
Cold weather is the primary culprit in hypothermia cases. When your body is exposed to extremely cold temperatures, it loses heat more quickly than it can produce it. Staying in cold water too long can also cause these effects.
The inability to produce adequate body heat is extremely dangerous; your body temperature can drop quickly and significantly.
Exposure to colder-than-normal temperatures can also cause hypothermia. For example, if you step into an extremely cold, air-conditioned room immediately after being outside, you risk losing too much body heat in a short period of time.
Infants and the elderly are at the highest risk for developing hypothermia. This is due to a decreased ability to regulate their body temperatures. Individuals in these age groups must be dressed appropriately for cold weather. Air conditioning must also be regulated to help prevent hypothermia at home.
Mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and dementia (memory loss that is often coupled with communication and comprehension difficulties) put an individual at a greater risk for hypothermia. With impaired mental judgment, individuals may not think to dress appropriately for cold weather. They also may not realize they are cold and may stay outside in cold temperatures for too long.
Alcohol or drug use can also impair an individual’s judgment toward the cold. These individuals are also more likely to pass out, which can occur outside in dangerously cold weather. Alcohol is especially dangerous because it gives the false impression of warming the insides. In reality, it causes the blood vessels to expand and the skin to lose more heat.
Certain medical conditions can affect the body’s ability to maintain an adequate temperature or to feel cold. These conditions include:
Some antidepressants, sedatives, and antipsychotic medications can affect your body’s ability to regulate its temperature. Talk to your doctor if you are taking these types of medications, especially if you frequently work outside in the cold or if you live in a cold-weather location.
Where you live can also affect your risk of cold bodily temperatures. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Alaska experienced the highest rate of hypothermia-related deaths between 1999 and 2002. Still, this does not mean that living in the Southern United States puts you out of harm’s way. New Mexico and Mississippi also experienced hypothermia-related deaths within the same time frame (CDC).
Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If you suspect that you or someone you know has hypothermia, call 911 immediately.
The goal of hypothermia treatment is to increase an individual’s body temperature to a normal range. While waiting for emergency care, the affected individual or his or her caregiver should do the following:
Severe hypothermia is medically treated with:
Immediate medical attention is crucial for preventing complications. The longer you wait, the more complications will arise from hypothermia. Frostbite (tissue death) is the most common complication, which occurs when body tissues freeze. Other complications include:
Preventive measures are key to stop hypothermia from occurring. The simplest steps you can take involve the clothing you wear. Dress in layers on cold days, even if you do not think it feels very cold outside. It is easier to remove clothing than it is to battle hypothermia. Cover all body parts, and wear hats, gloves, and scarves during the winter. Also, take care when exercising outdoors on cold days because sweat can cool you down and make your body more susceptible to hypothermia.
Staying dry is also important. Avoid swimming for long periods and make sure that you wear water-repellant clothing in rain and snow. If you are stuck in the water due to a boating accident, try to stay as dry as possible in or on the boat and avoid swimming until you see help nearby.
Keeping the body at a normal temperature is important to prevent hypothermia. If your temperature falls below 95° F, you should seek medical help, even if you feel no symptoms of hypothermia.
Written by: Kristeen Moore
Published on Jul 19, 2012
Updated on Feb 15, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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