Hypothermia: Symptoms and Treatment to Keep You Safe

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Winter weather is great for many activities: snow fights, building snowmen, drinking hot beverages, and gathering around a warm fireplace. However, it’s no secret that cold weather can also be very risky and lead to different health problems, including hypothermia. It’s important to learn the signs of hypothermia and how hypothermia victims should be treated in order to be prepared for emergencies during the winter.

Keep reading to learn more about hypothermia, its symptoms, treatment, and how to stay safe in cold weather.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can generate it, which leads to a dangerously low body temperature. Hypothermia is typically caused by prolonged exposure to extremely cold weather conditions.

When we’re exposed to the cold, our body starts to lose heat. If the exposure is prolonged, the body will run out of stored energy, which causes a drop in your body temperature. Hypothermia is defined as having a body core temperature below 95.0 F or 35.0 C in humans. If left untreated, hypothermia can quickly lead to severe health complications, and in some cases, even death.

Hypothermia can be classified according to its severity into three different categories:

  • Mild hypothermia (89.6-95 F or 32-35 C)
  • Moderate hypothermia (82.4-89.6 F or 28-32 C)
  • Severe hypothermia (under 82.4 F or 28 C)

Hypothermia leaves the body unable to maintain homeostasis and other bodily functions that are necessary to sustain our life. Extremely low body temperatures can affect the brain and other organs, which makes it more difficult to think clearly and protect yourself from the cold weather. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous.

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Hypothermia usually occurs in very cold weather, but it can also happen in regular cold weather after someone has been immersed in cold water, or gets wet from rain or sweat.

Some of the most common causes of hypothermia include:

  • Wearing clothes that aren’t warm enough for extremely cold weather
  • Staying outdoors for too long when it’s cold outside
  • Living in a house without an adequate heating system or insulation
  • Falling into cold water
  • Not being able to change out of cold, wet clothes quickly enough

Is there the opposite of hypothermia?

Yes. Hyperthermia is defined as an abnormally high body core temperature, and it’s the opposite of hypothermia. Hyperthermia, which is also known as overheating, can be caused by a wide range of issues. Some of the most common causes of hyperthermia include:

  • Intense physical activity in hot weather
  • Clogged or underdeveloped sweat ducts
  • Excessively hot, humid weather

The signs of hyperthermia can include:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Rapid heartbeat or breathing
  • Fainting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Low or high blood pressure
  • Seizures

Just like hypothermia, hyperthermia is a medical emergency that should be treated as quickly as possible to prevent complications.

Who’s at risk of hypothermia?

Anyone can suffer from hypothermia under the right circumstances, but some people have a higher risk of suffering from this medical emergency. People who are at higher risk of hypothermia include:

  • Seniors, especially those who don’t have access to adequate heating, clothing, or nutrition
  • Babies who sleep in cold bedrooms
  • Children, since they’re less likely to pay attention to hypothermia symptoms
  • Homeless people who sleep outside in the cold
  • People who spend long periods of time outside, such as hunters or hikers
  • People who use excessive alcohol or illicit drugs, which can make it harder to identify when it’s too cold outside
  • People with mental health problems who may not understand the risks of extreme weather conditions or who don’t dress appropriately for the weather
  • Patients with certain diseases, such as hypothyroidism, anorexia nervosa, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injuries

Hypothermia symptoms don’t happen all at once — instead, they develop gradually. This makes them especially dangerous, since they’re hard to spot at first. As hypothermia progresses, it becomes more difficult for the person to think clearly and seek shelter from the cold. Confusion can also lead to even riskier behavior, which can make the situation worse.

Frosted observation binoculars as a metaphor for hypothermia

Signs of hypothermia

As mentioned above, signs of hypothermia are progressive. The first symptom that most people experience during hypothermia is shivering. Shivering is your body’s initial defense mechanism against the cold, since the rapid muscle contraction is meant to increase your body temperature.

Some of the most common symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Pale and cold skin, possibly blue lips
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Mumbling
  • Slow reflexes
  • Shallow breathing
  • Fumbling hands
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Frequent urination
  • Slow breathing
  • Lack of coordination
  • Weak pulse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bright, red skin (infants)

It’s very important to keep in mind that babies and small children won’t be able to identify and communicate these symptoms to other people. You should always watch out for signs of hypothermia in your children when they’re exposed to cold weather. In addition to bright, red skin, children with hypothermia can also exhibit very low energy levels. Senior adults can also have difficulty spotting signs of hypothermia.

How to prevent hypothermia

One way to prevent hypothermia is to make sure you wear the right clothing for cold weather. You should watch out for weather forecasts during the winter, since they provide valuable information and extreme weather warnings that will help you prepare for the conditions each day.

If you’re going outside in cold weather, make sure to cover as much of your skin as possible.

Wear protective clothing such as a hat, scarf, and gloves made of warm material to prevent heat from escaping your body. It’s also important to wear different layers of clothing, even if you don’t think you’ll need them. It’s much easier to remove layers of clothing than it is to warm yourself in extreme cold.

If the weather is too cold, it may be a good idea to avoid outdoor physical activities. Exhaustion can increase the risk of hypothermia, and sweating can cool your skin and make you more susceptible to hypothermia. If you’re going to exercise in the cold, make sure to wear quick-dry clothing and to avoid overexertion. You should also change out of any wet clothes as quickly as possible, and avoid staying out in the cold for long periods of time.

A woman skiing in warm clothes to avoid hypothermia

It’s also important to protect children from hypothermia. Dress them in warm layers and add an extra layer for safety. Watch out for any signs of hypothermia in children, and bring them inside if they start to shiver or exhibit bright red skin. Additionally, bring children inside frequently if they’re playing outside, since this will allow them to warm up. Never leave a baby asleep in a cold room.

As we mentioned above, alcohol and drug use increase your risk of accidentally staying outdoors and developing hypothermia. If you’re going to be outdoors in cold weather, avoid drinking excessively to avoid this risk.

How should hypothermia victims be treated?

When someone develops hypothermia, it’s important to prevent further heat loss and help bring their core temperature back to normal. Since hypothermia can be fatal, it’s also necessary to assess the person’s breathing, circulation, and vital signs.

If someone develops hypothermia, you should call emergency services as soon as possible.

Patients with hypothermia should be evaluated by healthcare professionals, and in some cases, they may need to be monitored for some time until they’re out of danger. In some cases, patients may need oxygen supplementation and warm IV fluids to aid in the rewarming process.

There are certain things you can do to provide hypothermia support while you wait for emergency services to arrive, such as:

  • Bring the affected person inside, preferably into a warm room.
  • Remove any wet clothing and replace it with dry — and preferably warm — clothes.
  • If available, use a warm hypothermia blanket to cover their neck, chest, abdomen, and groin.
  • Provide warm, non-alcoholic drinks or soups if the person is conscious.
  • Keep the affected person dry and warm.
  • Don’t rub or massage the person, since rubbing can worsen skin injuries and even trigger cardiac arrest.
  • If the affected person doesn’t have a pulse, isn’t breathing, or appears to be dead, provide CPR continuously until medical help arrives.

Fortunately, most cases of hypothermia improve once the right treatment is provided.

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Therapeutic hypothermia protocol

Believe it or not, a therapeutic hypothermia protocol is actually used in medical settings to help certain patients. A hypothermia protocol is most often used on patients who have had a cardiac arrest, which happens when someone’s heart stops beating suddenly.

Therapeutic hypothermia is used after the patient’s heart is beating again. The patient’s temperature is lowered to approximately 89-93 F (32-34 C) for up to 24 hours under strict medical supervision. This treatment can help reduce brain damage after cardiac arrest, which improves the patient’s prognosis.

Hypothermia can quickly become a life-threatening emergency, but fortunately, there are many things you can do to prevent it. The most important steps in hypothermia prevention are to keep yourself protected from cold weather, and to avoid spending too much time outdoors in the cold. But if someone develops hypothermia, it’s very important to spot the early signs in order to treat the issue as quickly as possible.

July 18, 2022