Hypothermia is a potentially life-threatening condition in which your body temperature drops to dangerously low levels.
Hypothermia occurs when your body loses more heat than it can produce. Our bodies have ways of adapting to cold temperatures, such as shivering, but they also rely on external measures, such as appropriate clothing and gear, to keep us warm.
Normal body temperature is around 98.5° F. Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below 95.0° F. If your body temperature drops below normal levels, your body’s systems, like your cardiac system, metabolic system, pulmonary system, and neurologic system
s, must work harder to continue to function. Body temperatures that drop to dangerously low levels, below 82° F, can quickly lead to death because the heart, lungs, brain, and other organs stop working.
What causes hypothermia?
Exposure to cold air or wind, cold water, or cold environments can cause hypothermia. You can get hypothermia even if you don’t live in extremely cold regions of the world.
Factors that can put someone at risk for hypothermia include:
- Being advanced in age, or young children and infants, and not dressed warmly enough, even indoors
- Staying outdoors for long periods of time (for example, by hunting, hiking, skiing, or being homeless)
- Wearing clothing that is not warm enough for the environment
- Wearing wet clothing (like from rain, sweat)
- Inability to get to a warm, dry environment
- Drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs
- Being submerged in cold water
- Having mental conditions such as dementia
- Being malnourished
- Taking certain prescription medications
- Having a skin condition, like a burn
What are the symptoms of hypothermia?
Symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Drowsiness, sluggishness
- Cold skin
- Decreased coordination
- Shallow breathing
- Slurred speech
- Loss of shivering (with worsening hypothermia)
- Loss of consciousness
- In babies: Bright red, cold skin and very low energy
What should you do if you suspect hypothermia?
If you suspect someone is experiencing hypothermia, get help right away by calling 9-1-1. While waiting for help to arrive, gently get the person into a warm, dry environment as soon as possible. As the body temperature drops, brain function also decreases, which can lead to confusion and poor judgment. Help them get out of cold, out of their wet clothes, and into dry clothes or dry blankets. Place blankets around the person, including on the head and neck. If it appears that someone has stopped breathing and/or does not have a pulse, perform rescue breathing and/or CPR until help arrives.
How do I prevent hypothermia?
The best way to prevent hypothermia is to be well-prepared.
- Wear dry, warm clothing when the weather is cold.
- Don’t drink alcohol outside in cold weather or while boating.
- Don’t take illicit drugs.
- Avoid strenuous activities outdoors in cold weather.
- Stay as dry as possible when outdoors.
- Wear a life jacket when on a boat.
Hieu Duong, Gaurav Patel, “Hypothermia,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, updated August 10, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545239/
Michigan Medicine, “Hypothermia and Cold Temperature Exposure,” University of Michigan, https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/aa53968spec
Mayo Clinic, “Hypothermia,” April 18, 2020, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypothermia/symptoms-causes/syc-20352682
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Prevent Hypothermia & Frostbite,” February 8, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe/hypothermia.html Ken Zafren, C Crawford Mechem, “Accidental hypothermia in adults,” UpToDate, updated May 13, 2020.