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A Guide On Hypothermia: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment Options

Rebekah Pais

Rebekah Pais
Nov 2023

2 min read
Hypothermia Symptoms

Table of content

Did you know that hypothermia, a potentially life-threatening condition, affects millions of people worldwide each year? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 1.7 million deaths annually can be attributed to exposure to cold environments. 

These chilling statistics underscore the importance of understanding and addressing this issue, especially as temperatures drop and winter sets in.

Navigate through our latest blog to gain invaluable insights into the condition, covering everything from its definition and symptoms to its causes, treatment options, and even its impact on newborns.

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What Is Hypothermia?

A medical emergency occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing the core body temperature to drop below the normal range of around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius). 

  • This condition is often associated with prolonged exposure to cold weather, wind, or water, and it can be life-threatening if not addressed promptly.
  • Understanding it involves recognizing its progressive stages and associated symptoms. 
  • In its early stages, individuals may exhibit signs such as shivering, cold skin, and confusion as the body attempts to counteract heat loss. 
  • As the condition advances, shivering may cease, replaced by more serious symptoms like lethargy, slurred speech, and compromised coordination. 
  • Awareness of risk factors, preventive measures, and timely intervention are crucial for managing the condition effectively, making it essential for individuals. 
  • As per the National Library of Medicine, patients who receive rapid resuscitation usually have good results, but residual frostbite and muscle injury may be present. Outcomes are worse for the very young and elderly.

What Are The Stages Of Hypothermia

The Three main stages are each characterized by distinct symptoms and levels of severity. These stages are based on the core body temperature, and the severity of symptoms may vary among individuals.

1. Mild:

  • In the initial stage, the core body temperature drops moderately, usually in the range of 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (32 to 35 degrees Celsius). 
  • Symptoms may include shivering, cold and pale skin, numbness, and mild confusion. 
  • The body is still attempting to generate heat, and the individual can generally address these symptoms with external warmth and proper insulation.

2. Moderate:

  • As the condition progresses to the moderate stage, the core body temperature falls further, typically between 82 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (28 to 32 degrees Celsius). 
  • Shivering becomes more intense initially but may eventually cease as the body’s energy reserves are depleted. 
  • Coordination and cognitive functions are impaired, and the person may experience confusion, lethargy, and slurred speech. 
  • Immediate medical attention is crucial at this stage to prevent further deterioration.

3. Severe:

  • It occurs when the core body temperature drops below 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius). 
  • Shivering stops and the individual may lose consciousness. 
  • Metabolic and physiological processes slow significantly, leading to a high risk of life-threatening complications such as cardiac arrest. 
  • Emergency medical intervention is essential to rewarm the body and stabilize vital functions.

What Are The Causes Of Hypothermia

It can occur when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, and several factors contribute to this imbalance. The primary causes include:

1. Cold Weather Exposure:

  • Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, especially in windy or wet conditions, is a common cause 
  • Wind increases heat loss from the body, and wet clothing or submersion in cold water accelerates this process.

2. Inadequate Clothing:

  • Wearing clothing that is insufficient for the prevailing weather conditions increases the risk of heat loss. 
  • Lack of proper insulation, especially in extreme cold, leaves individuals more vulnerable to the condition.

3. Exhaustion:

  • Physical exhaustion, whether due to outdoor activities or prolonged exposure to cold, can compromise the body’s ability to regulate temperature. 
  • Fatigue reduces the effectiveness of mechanisms that generate heat through movement and muscle activity.
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4. Malnutrition and Dehydration:

  • Poor nutrition and dehydration can hinder the body’s ability to produce energy and maintain optimal metabolic function. 
  • This weakened state makes individuals more susceptible to the effects of cold exposure.

5. Age:

  • Infants and older adults are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia. 
  • Infants may lose heat more quickly due to their higher surface area relative to body mass.
  • Older adults may have reduced metabolic rates and decreased ability to sense temperature changes.

6. Medical Conditions:

  • Certain medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, diabetes symptoms, and neurological disorders, can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature and increase the risk of the condition.

7. Substance Abuse:

  • Alcohol and drug use can contribute to this condition. 
  • Alcohol causes blood vessels to dilate, leading to increased heat loss, and it can also impair judgment, making individuals less likely to take measures to stay warm.

8. Trauma Or Immobility:

  • Injuries or conditions that limit movement and physical activity reduce the body’s ability to generate heat. 
  • Immobilized individuals, whether due to injury or medical conditions, are at a higher risk.

Signs And Symptoms Of Hypothermia

The signs and hypothermia symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the condition. It’s important to note that symptoms may progress quickly, and recognizing early signs is crucial for prompt intervention. Here are the common signs and symptoms:

1. Shivering: Shivering is the body’s natural response to generate heat. In the early stages of the condition, shivering is common as the body attempts to maintain its core temperature.

2. Cold And Pale Skin: The skin may feel cold to the touch, and it may appear pale or bluish. Peripheral vasoconstriction occurs to preserve heat for vital organs, resulting in cool extremities.

3. Numbness And Tingling: As hypothermia progresses, individuals may experience numbness and tingling in the extremities. Reduced blood flow to the skin and peripheral tissues contributes to these sensations.

4. Fatigue And Weakness: The condition can lead to fatigue and weakness as the body’s metabolic processes slow down. Individuals may feel increasingly lethargic and find it difficult to perform basic tasks.

5. Confusion And Impaired Coordination: Mental confusion, slurred speech, and difficulty concentrating are common cognitive symptoms of the condition. Impaired coordination and clumsiness may become apparent as body temperature continues to drop.

7. Slow Or Shallow Breathing: The condition can affect the respiratory system, leading to slow or shallow breathing. This is part of the body’s effort to conserve energy.

8. Loss Of Consciousness: In severe cases of the condition, individuals may lose consciousness. This is a critical emergency, and immediate medical attention is necessary.

What Are The Diagnosis Of Hypothermia

The diagnosis of the condition is primarily based on clinical signs, symptoms, and the patient’s history, especially exposure to cold conditions. Medical professionals will assess the person’s physical state and may use various tools to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of the condition. Diagnostic measures include:

1. Core Body Temperature Measurement: The most accurate method to diagnose the condition is by measuring the core body temperature. 

This can be done using a rectal thermometer, esophageal thermometer, or tympanic (ear) thermometer. A core body temperature below the normal range of 95–97 degrees Fahrenheit (35–36 degrees Celsius) indicates hypothermia.

2. Physical Examination: Healthcare providers will conduct a thorough physical examination to assess symptoms such as shivering, cold skin, and changes in mental status. The severity of the condition is often categorized into mild, moderate, and severe based on clinical observations.

3. Blood Tests: Blood tests may be performed to assess electrolyte levels, blood glucose, and other metabolic parameters. These tests can help identify any underlying medical conditions or complications associated with the condition.

4. Imaging Studies: In severe cases or when complications are suspected, imaging studies such as X-rays may be used to assess injuries, especially if the condition results from trauma or falls.

5. Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): An ECG may be performed to monitor cardiac activity, as the condition can affect the heart’s electrical conduction system. Changes in heart rate and rhythm may be observed.

6. Monitoring Oxygen Levels: Oxygen saturation levels may be monitored using a pulse oximeter, especially if respiratory distress is a concern. It can affect respiratory function, leading to decreased oxygen levels in the blood.

7. Urinalysis: In some cases, a urinalysis may be conducted to assess kidney function and identify any abnormalities that could contribute to or result from the condition.

Precautions To Be Taken During Hypothermia

Taking appropriate precautions during the condition is crucial to prevent further heat loss and protect the affected individual. If you suspect someone is experiencing it, here are essential precautions to take:

1. Move To A Warm Environment: If possible, move the person to a warm and dry place. Get them out of cold and windy conditions to prevent further heat loss.

2. Remove Wet Clothing: Wet clothing exacerbates heat loss. Remove any wet clothes and replace them with dry, warm layers. Pay attention to wet gloves, socks, and hats.

3. Insulate With Blankets Or Warmth: Wrap the person in warm blankets or use any available insulation to trap body heat. Cover the head and neck while leaving the face exposed.

4. Provide Warm, Non-Alcoholic Beverages: Offer warm, non-alcoholic beverages to help raise the person’s internal temperature. Avoid alcohol, as it can increase heat loss.

5. Use Body Heat: If no other warming measures are available, share body heat. Lie close to the person, skin-to-skin if possible, to transfer warmth.

6. Avoid Active Warming Techniques:  For severe hypothermia, avoid using active warming techniques like hot baths or heating pads. These methods can cause complications. Instead, focus on gradual warming.

7. Seek Medical Help Promptly: The condition is a medical emergency, especially in severe cases. Seek professional medical assistance promptly. Emergency medical services can provide necessary interventions and transport to a medical facility.

8. Monitor Breathing And Circulation: Continuously monitor the person’s breathing and circulation. If breathing becomes slow or stops, or if there are no signs of circulation, initiate CPR if trained to do so while awaiting medical help.

9. Protect Against Further Exposure: Once the person is in a warm environment, take precautions to prevent further exposure. Keep them wrapped in warm blankets and shielded from cold drafts.

10. Stay Alert For Signs Of Shock: The condition can lead to shock. Watch for signs such as rapid breathing, weak pulse, or changes in consciousness. If shock is suspected, seek immediate medical attention.

Foods To Eat Vs Foods To Avoid For Hypothermia 

Explore our guide on Foods to Eat versus Foods to Avoid, offering insights on nutrition that can indirectly support the body’s ability to regulate temperature and aid recovery. Understanding the right dietary choices is a valuable component in the comprehensive care of individuals dealing with or susceptible to the condition.

Foods To Eat Vs Foods To Avoid For Hypothermia

Foods To Eat

1. High-Calorie Foods: Foods such as nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and avocado benefits can provide essential energy, aiding the body’s efforts to generate heat and maintain core temperature

2. Complex Carbohydrates:  Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables during the condition are advantageous, as these foods provide a sustained release of energy, supporting the body’s metabolic processes

3. Warm Beverages: Opting for warm beverages such as herbal tea, hot water with lemon, or broths can be beneficial, as they contribute not only to internal warmth but also help combat the cold by providing essential hydration.

4. Protein-Rich Foods: Lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, and nuts are crucial, as they play a vital role in maintaining muscle function and energy metabolism

Foods To Avoid

1. Alcohol:  Avoiding alcohol is crucial for individuals dealing with or susceptible to the condition, as it can lead to increased heat loss, impair judgment, and dilate blood vessels, ultimately contributing to a heightened risk of cold-related complications. 

2. Caffeine: Limiting caffeine intake is advisable for those facing hypothermia, as excessive consumption can lead to increased urine production, potentially contributing to dehydration.

3. Sugary Foods: Avoiding excessive consumption of sugary foods is recommended for individuals dealing with the condition, as they can lead to a rapid spike in blood sugar followed by a crash, potentially impacting energy levels

4. Highly Processed Foods: Opting for whole, minimally processed foods supports overall health and helps maintain proper hydration levels in cold conditions.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can Hypothermia Be Self-Treated?

Mild conditions may be addressed with external warming measures like adding layers of clothing or consuming warm beverages. However, professional medical evaluation is crucial, especially for moderate to severe cases.

How Is Severe Hypothermia Treated?

The Severe stage of this condition requires professional medical intervention. Treatment involves gradual rewarming, monitoring vital signs, and addressing complications. Avoid aggressive rewarming techniques without medical supervision.

What Are The Signs Of Hypothermia In A Newborn?

Signs may include cold or cool skin, excessive crying, lethargy, difficulty feeding, and a weak cry. In severe cases, a newborn may be unresponsive.

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Disclaimer

This blog was written to help you make healthy and better food choices. So, be aware and take care. The vital thing to consider is your health before starting a restrictive diet. Therefore, before starting, always seek advice from a doctor/dietitian if you have any concerns.

Eat Healthy, Live Healthy. Enjoy a long, happy life.

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