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Hypothermia: Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact: Disabled World

Published: 2013-11-03 : (Rev. 2016-01-06)

Synopsis and Key Points:

Information regarding Hypothermia a dangerous condition marked by an unusually low internal body temperature.

Main Digest

Hypothermia, similar to high blood pressure, may be referred to as a, "silent killer," in the sense that a number of the people affected by it are unaware of the threat it presents. Where hypothermia is concerned, seniors may not be aware they are becoming cold as quickly as those who are younger and their bodies might not adjust to changes in temperature.

Hypothermia - Defined as a condition in which body core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions defined as 35.0 degree C (95.0 degree F). Body temperature is usually maintained near a constant level of 36.5 to 37.5 degree C (98 to 100 degree F). Hypothermia can quickly become life threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency. Hypothermia is the opposite of hyperthermia which is present in heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Frostnip - A mild form of frostbite which irritates the skin, causing it to become mildly pale or red and feel cold, followed by numbness and a tingling feeling. The skin is not permanently damaged from frostnip. The affected part may be slowly warmed by breathing onto the injured site, such as breathing into cupped hands. A hand with frostnip can also be warmed under the armpit. Numbness gives way to a warm flush feeling that can be painful as rewarming progresses.

Frostbite - Much more serious and may occur when skin is exposed to a temperature lower than 14 degree F (-10 degree C). Skin first becomes very cold and red, then numb, hard, pale and swollen when underlying tissues are affected. Frostbite requires immediate medical attention because of possible extensive injury, which can be complicated by infection and nerve damage.

Hypothermia is a condition marked by an unusually low internal body temperature.

The condition develops when a person's body heat is lost to a cool or cold environment quicker than it can be replaced.

Temperatures do not have to be below freezing for hypothermia to happen, contrary to what some may believe, particularly in vulnerable people.

A number of older adults may develop a low body temperature after exposure to conditions of mild cold, something that might only produce discomfort in people who are younger.

People at Risk of Hypothermia

While older adults are more vulnerable to hypothermia than younger people in many instances, infants under the age of one year are also particularly susceptible. Among other people, those most likely to develop hypothermia include those who are:

Chart showing people at risk of hypothermia
Chart showing people at risk of hypothermia

More people who are susceptible to hypothermia include those who live alone or in isolated areas, particularly if they do not have access to a phone to contact assistance in case of illness or an accident, people who do not shiver or react to cold, and those who take certain medications that prevent their bodies from regulating temperatures appropriately. Medications that can prevent a person's body from regulating temperatures appropriately include:

Medications deserve to be mentioned because they are believed to be a major predisposing factor to hypothermia in seniors who are a growing population in many nations around the world today and consume a large percentage of the medications prescribed. It is important to check with a pharmacist or doctor for more information concerning other medications that increase your susceptibility to hypothermia.

Hypothermia may cause illness or even death. While there is no accurate data concerning the numbers of seniors who perish from this condition, it is estimated that around 10% of all people over the age of 65 experience some form of temperature regulating deficiency and between 3-4% of all people over the age of 65 in the hospital are hypothermic. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) has estimated that more than 2.5 million seniors in America are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia. Harvard Medical School estimates that 25,000 seniors may die from hypothermia every year in America.

Symptoms of Hypothermia

Chart showing medications that work to prevent proper body temperature
Chart showing medications that work to prevent proper body temperature

The fact is - some people die of hypothermia simply because they or the people around them do not recognize the symptoms. It is important to be aware of the symptoms of hypothermia if you live in an area that is cold. The symptoms of hypothermia are presented below.

Heart Rate and Breathing: Both of these are slowed at low body temperatures and might be very hard to detect in severe hypothermia.

Face: A person's face is often swollen or puffy and this may be an important sign, particularly when it is combined with signs of confusion and cold skin.

Coordination: A person with hypothermia many times has trouble with walking and issues with balance. Look for jerky movements and poor coordination.

Attitude: People with hypothermia are often apathetic, not caring what happens and will do nothing to help reduce the danger. They may behave strangely, or become irritable, mean, hostile, or even aggressive.

Muscles: A person's muscles are often times unusually stiff, especially in their legs, arms, and neck. The stiffness might be accompanied by a fine trembling, possibly limited to one side of their body or one leg or arm.

Skin: A person with hypothermia has skin that is cool or cold. Pay attention to their legs, arms, feet, hands, lower back and stomach. The person's skin color is usually very pale, although it might also have large and irregular pink or blue spots.

Shivering: Shivering is a sign that a person's body is having difficulties with keeping warm. The shivering response is often diminished or even completely absent in seniors and the fact that an older person is not shivering in a cool or cold environment is not a guarantee that they are not cold.

Confusion: One of the first changes brought on by hypothermia is increasing mental confusion which worsens as their body temperature decreases. Logical thinking becomes impossible the person might become entirely disoriented. Memory is affected and things that were formerly familiar are many times forgotten.

Consciousness: As a person's body cools, their consciousness becomes depressed. Some people with hypothermia remain conscious when their body temperatures reach as low as 80 degrees. Bear in mind that, 'conscious,' and, 'mental clarity,' are very different. A person may be, 'conscious and reactive,' and still be disoriented, confused and in a hypothermic state so their level of consciousness is not always a reliable indicator of their condition.

Treating Hypothermia

If you think someone might be affected by hypothermia, call for an ambulance immediately. Hypothermia is a dangerous and complicated medical issue and the person needs professional medical attention. Before help arrives there are some suggestions you may follow to help.

Be very careful as you handle the person, if you are not careful you may cause the person's sudden death because their heart is very weak when their body is cold. Insulate the person with coverings you have available such as blankets, pillows, towels, scarves, or even newspapers. Do not try to re-warm the person at home; hot baths, hot water bottles and electric blankets may be dangerous.

It is important that you do not give the person anything to drink or eat. If the person is unconscious, do not raise their feet. Raising the person's feet will cause blood from their legs to flow into their body core and further depress the temperature of their body.

Preventing Hypothermia

Avoiding harm due to hypothermia is important now that cold weather is here in many parts of America. If you live alone, arrange for a daily check-in call with a family member, friend, neighbor or someone else you know. Insulate your home appropriately; caulking is low-cost and effective. Wear warm clothes; instead of tight clothing, wear several loose and warm layers. Wear a hat and scarf to avoid heat loss through your head and neck.

Stay dry - moisture from rain, melting snow, or perspiration may seriously reduce or even destroy the insulating value of clothes because water conducts body heat more than 25 times faster than air. Use extra blankets because hypothermia may develop while you sleep. Eat foods that are nutritious and exercise moderately, a proper diet and physical exercise help to protect you against both heat and cold. Get proper rest because fatigue makes you more vulnerable to cold. Drink appropriate amounts of liquids and limit your intake of alcohol because alcohol speeds up the loss of body heat.

Quick Facts:

When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. It is very important to remember to take caution during extremely cold temperatures and severe winter weather to prevent injuries and illness, such as hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia occurs most commonly at very cold environmental temperatures, but can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40 degree F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

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