Hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature (usually under 96 degrees) brought on by staying in cold temperatures for a long period of time. This lowered body temperature affects the brain and a person's ability to think clearly or move well. Severe hypothermia can also cause an irregular heartbeat leading to heart failure and death.
While hypothermia happens most often in very cold temperatures, even cool temperatures (above 40°F or 4°C) can be dangerous to a person who has become chilled from rain, sweat, or being in cold water for an extended period of time.
Who Is At Risk For Hypothermia?
The following people are most at risk for hypothermia:
- Elderly people, even if they have no other illnesses, such as hypothyroidism, heart disease, or circulation problems, or take medicines that interfere with the body's ability to regulate its temperature
- Elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heat. Often these people sit alone for hours or days at a time in a cold apartment or home. Improper nutrition also makes older people more susceptible to the cold.
- Infants and toddlers sleeping in cold bedrooms
- People who stay outdoors for long periods of time, such as the homeless, hikers, and hunters
- Persons on medications that increase the risk of accidental hypothermia, such as drugs to treat anxiety, depression or nausea, as well as some over-the-counter cold remedies
Half of the elderly people who develop hypothermia die before, or soon after, being found. However, even young, seemingly strong people, are affected by hypothermia when exposed to the cold for long periods of time.
What Are The Symptoms Of Hypothermia?
The most common symptoms of hypothermia are:
- Fumbling hands
- Severe shivering or no shivering
- Slow, slurred speech
- Shallow breathing
- Weak pulse
- Low blood pressure
- A change in behavior or appearance during cold weather
- Stiffness in the arms and legs
- Poor control over body movements or slow reactions
- In infants, bright red, cold skin and/or very low energy.
How Can I Tell If Someone Has Hypothermia?
Using a thermometer is better than feeling a person's forehead to determine if a person has hypothermia.
If the person's temperature is below 96 degrees F (35.5 degrees C), or you can't read it on an oral thermometer, use a rectal thermometer to take the person's temperature for a more exact reading.
If the thermometer still does not show the temperature or is below 96 degrees F, call for emergency help.
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What Is First Aid For Hypothermia?
If you suspect someone has hypothermia, take their body temperature. If the person's temperature is below 96° F, the situation is an emergency - get medical attention immediately.
If the person has symptoms of hypothermia and a temperature cannot be taken, call 911.
It is important that victims of hypothermia receive immediate medical attention. While waiting for medical attention, some methods of dealing with a hypothermia victim include the following:
- Seek medical attention as soon as possible.
- Get the person into a warm room or shelter.
- Remove any wet clothing.
- Warm the center of the body first—the chest, neck head, and groin—using an electric blanket or skin-to-skin contact, with your own body heat providing warmth to the victim.
- Don't rub the person's arms or legs, which can make the problem worse as it may cause cool blood that had pooled in the extremities to return to the circulation and cause a further drop in core temperature.
- Be careful to not handle the victim roughly.
- Offer warm, non-alcoholic drinks if available, but never try to give an unconscious person something to drink.
- Once the body temperature begins to increase, keep the person dry and wrapped in warm blankets.
- Avoid alcohol or cigarettes, both of which hamper the body's ability to warm.
Can I Prevent Hypothermia?
Be aware of these tips to help prevent hypothermia:
- Some prescription and over-the-counter meds may increase your risk for hypothermia. Ask your doctor if this pertains to you.
- Set your home's thermostat to at least 68 degrees. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can trigger hypothermia in older people.
- To stay warm at home, wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers. Use a blanket to keep your legs and shoulders warm.
- When going outside in the cold, wear a hat, scarf, gloves, along with several layers of loose clothing to trap warm air between the layers.
- Carry a fully charged cell phone when you go out, and let someone know when you're venturing outside.
Hypothermia can occur even when a person is inside.
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