Hypothermia and Cold Temperature Exposure

Topic Overview

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs when the body gets cold and loses heat faster than the body can make it. A normal rectal body temperature ranges from 97.5°F (36.4°C) to 99.6°F (37.6°C) and for most people is 98.6°F (37°C).

Sometimes a normal, healthy adult has a low body temperature, such as 96°F (36°C). If the person with the low body temperature is not ill, does not have any other problems, and is not an infant or an older adult, then evaluation usually is not needed.

What can cause hypothermia?

Hypothermia can occur when you are exposed to cold air, water, wind, or rain.

Your body temperature can drop to a low level at temperatures of 50°F (10°C) or higher in wet and windy weather, or if you are in 60°F (16°C) to 70°F (21°C) water. If you have mild hypothermia, home treatment may be enough to bring your body temperature back up to normal.

What are the symptoms?

Early symptoms include:

  • Shivering.
  • Cold, pale, or blue-gray skin.
  • Lack of interest or concern (apathy).
  • Poor judgment.
  • Mild unsteadiness in balance or walking.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Numb hands and fingers and difficulty performing tasks.

Late symptoms include:

  • The trunk of the body is cold to the touch.
  • Muscles become stiff.
  • Slow pulse.
  • Breathing that is shallow and slower.
  • Weakness or sleepiness.
  • Confusion.
  • Loss of consciousness .
  • Shivering, which may stop if body temperature drops below 90°F (32°C).

For information about when to seek medical care, go to the topic Cold Temperature Exposure.

What can happen from hypothermia?

Hypothermia is an emergency condition and can quickly lead to unconsciousness and death if heat loss continues. It is very important to know the symptoms of hypothermia and get treatment quickly. If someone begins to shiver violently, stumble, or can't respond to questions, suspect hypothermia and warm him or her quickly.

Who is at risk for hypothermia?

Anyone can get hypothermia.

Most healthy people with mild to moderate hypothermia recover completely without permanent injury. Recovery is more difficult for babies and older, ill, or inactive adults. Hypothermia can occur indoors, especially in babies and older or ill adults that are not dressed warmly enough.

How is it treated?

Medical treatment for hypothermia depends on the severity of the hypothermia. Treatment of mild hypothermia includes getting out of the cold or wet environment, using warm blankets, heaters, and hot water bottles.

Moderate to severe hypothermia generally is treated in the hospital, where health professionals can give warmed intravenous fluids and warm, moist oxygen in addition to other treatments to warm the core body temperature.

Related Information

Credits

Author Jan Nissl, RN, BS
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Tracy Landauer
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Updated June 30, 2009

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