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, who often have 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 them 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
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
- Shivering and exhaustion
- Slow, slurred speech, or shallow breathing
- Weak pulse and/or 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
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How Can You Prevent Hypothermia?
Hypothermia can occur even when a person is indoors. 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.
How Can I Treat Hypothermia?
If you suspect someone has hypothermia, take their body temperature. If it is below 95° 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 victim into a warm room or shelter.
- If he or she has on any wet clothing, remove it immediately.
- Warm the center of the body first—the chest, neck head, and groin—using an electric blanket, if it is available. Or use skin-to-skin contact, with your own body heat providing warmth to the victim.
- Be careful to not handle the victim roughly.
- Warm beverages can also be helpful, but never give a victim of hypothermia any alcoholic beverage, and 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.
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