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HomeHealth A-Z Hypothermia
Hypothermia
Hypothermia
The prevention of hypothermia is actually quite simple. Being prepared is the best way to avoid the condition.

Hypothermia

(hi-poh-THIR-mee-uh)

Definition of Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a serious medical condition in which the body's core temperature falls below normal, usually due to prolonged exposure to cold and wet conditions.

Description of Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a condition where the core body temperature drops below the temperature that is required for the body to function normally. In other words, hypothermia is a condition where the body temperature drops so low that the normal metabolism is interrupted. This condition occurs in warm blooded animals because they need their core body temperature to remain about the same to live a happy, healthy life. When the body temperature drops because of exposure to cold weather the internal mechanisms change, and the body may not be able to stay warm enough because of the extreme cold. There are three stages of hypothermia, each being more progressive and serious.

Causes and Risk Factors of Hypothermia

The cause of hypothermia is simply being exposed to extremely cold temperatures for long periods of time. This can happen to people that are hunting, skiing, or like to spend time outdoors and are not as prepared for the cold temperatures as they should be. Many of the people that suffer from hypothermia are those that didn’t intend to be caught in the cold temperatures, such as those that get lost in the woods, those that have their car break down and attempt to walk to safety, and those that go hiking or something similar and run into weather that they did not know that they would be confronting cool temperatures. Everyone is at risk of developing hypothermia if they live in an area where the temperatures are very cold and they are not prepared. Those that spend time outdoors hiking, biking, or other sports are usually the most at risk. The elderly as well as young children are more susceptible, though they are not the only ones that can develop the condition.

There are some instances where hypothermia can be medically induced. This is often done to lower the body temperature of an individual or treat certain conditions. When this is done the individual is very carefully monitored and the doctors ensure that they can bring the core body temperature up safely.

Symptoms of Hypothermia

There are three basic stages of hypothermia and the symptoms with each stage vary. During stage one the body temperature of the individual drops by one to two degrees from his or her normal temperature that is at or about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. During this stage of the condition there is mild shivering and it can be difficult to do even the simplest things because the hands often shake and they can become numb. The blood vessels in the extremities will contract, which is an attempt by the body to control the loss of blood. Other symptoms include goose bumps all over the body, which is also an attempt to control the loss of heat.

During stage two of the condition the body temperature drops by two to four degrees. The shivering that is experienced in stage one will become more noticeable and a lack of muscle coordination becomes more obvious. Most patients will not be able to move as easily and when they do move it takes great effort. Confusion and paleness of the face are common as well as the lips, ears, fingers, and toes becoming blue. Many people become lost or very confused in this state and are not able to determine which way is up or down, which can be dangerous when individuals are outdoors and alone.

In the third stage of hypothermia the individual has lost about 10 degrees body temperature with a temperature around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The shivering will actually stop at this point and there will be extreme difficulty in trying to speak, thought processes slow, and there are often signs of amnesia. Most individuals cannot or have great difficulty in using their hands and when they try to walk they will stumble and have a less than stable stance. The skin at this point will usually become puffy with a blue tint to it with a serious lack of muscle coordination. Many have to stop walking because it becomes impossible, and behavior can range from irrational to violent. If treatment is not sought the heart and respiratory rates slow and organs begin to fail and death is imminent.

Diagnosis of Hypothermia

The diagnosis of hypothermia is very simple and only requires that a medical care provider take the temperature of the individual that is affected by a variety of symptoms associated with hypothermia. Generally speaking, doctors can make the diagnosis simply by looking at the individual and knowing the circumstances to which they have been exposed.

Treatment of Hypothermia

Treating hypothermia involves the process of warming the body. This is usually done with blanket and other warming devices for those that have more mild forms of hypothermia. In more extreme cases the individual will actually undergo the process of washing techniques, where warm fluids are injected into the veins. Washing is often done on the bladder, stomach, chest, and abdomen to help return the body to a normal core temperature. Hospitals take great care during this process because seizure is often associated with this process, so many times the patient will be restrained to avoid falls or the breaking of bones when seizure occurs.

Prevention of Hypothermia

The prevention of hypothermia is actually quite simple. Being prepared is the best way to avoid the condition, which means those that will be spending time outdoors need to be wearing the proper clothing and be aware that heat is lost very quickly through the head. If you will be spending time outdoors you need to have the proper clothing, and most importantly you need to wear a hat because the heat of the body is lost most quickly through the head.

In water the body loses heat even faster than in the air. It’s important to be aware of water temperatures as the condition can occur quite quickly in water temperatures as warm as 61 or 62 degrees Fahrenheit. Swimming in sea water is often the cause of hypothermia and simply being aware that there is a possibility of hypothermia can prevent the onset of the condition.

External Resources

Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University

University of Minnesota

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