Hypothermia - a fact you should be aware of this winter!

Last Editorial Review: 10/25/2002

Hypothermia refers to abnormally low body temperature in warm-blooded animals; it is usually accompanied by a decrease in metabolism. Animals often use this mechanism which includes slowing of the pulse, blood pressure and breathing to survive in the cold.

However, in humans the condition needs treatment at body temperatures of 35C (95 F) or below. And hypothermia becomes life threatening below body temperatures of 32.2 C (90 F). Hypothermia can be intentionally "induced" by physicians during certain procedures to decrease the body's need for oxygen.

The signs and symptoms of hypothermia depend upon the body temperature. The major initial sign is a decrease in mental function that leads to impaired ability to make decisions. The following are also signs:

  • Tiredness or lethargy
  • Changes in speech
  • Disorientation are typical, for example, the person will act as if they are "drunk".
  • The body gradually loses protective reflexes such as shivering which is an important heat- generating defense.
  • Other muscle functions also disappear so that the person cannot walk or stand. Eventually consciousness is lost.

Recognizing hypothermia can be difficult for the symptoms at first resemble other causes of change in mental and motor functions such as, diabetes, stroke, alcohol or drug use, etc. The most important thing is to think of the possibility and be prepared to treat.

Treatment involves slow heating of the body using blankets or other ways of increasing body warmth. Body temperature should increase by NO MORE than a couple of degrees per hour. What is done for the hypothermic individual depends on the seriousness of the problem.

Those with mild or moderate hypothermia (are alert and conscious, and have not lost the shivering reflex) will usually just require removal from the cold environment and providing additional insulation. The use of warm sleeping bags, lighting a fire, warm food and fluids are just some of the various methods. Persons who have a more severe degree of body heat loss (not alert, can't shiver or stand) should also be brought to a medical facility as quickly as possible; re- warming of the body should continue as well.

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