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Low Body Temperature (Hypothermia): Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Hypothermia
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What is Hypothermia?

Whether you’re dealing with extreme heat or extreme cold, temperature extremes are detrimental for the human body. Hypothermia is also known as extremely low body temperature. It is caused by prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures. The longer the body is exposed to cold, the faster it loses heat. Low body temperatures may severely impact the brain, which makes it difficult for the individual to think or handle hypothermia effectively. Hypothermia is most common under extremely cold temperatures, but it may also occur when wet from rain or submerged in water. Anytime you are in cold temperatures or water, you should be mindful of the potential for hypothermia.

Stages of Hypothermia

Any drop in body temperature below 37 degrees Celsius is considered hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs in three stages. The phases occur as follows:

  • First stage: The individual experiences shivering and reduced circulation.
  • Second stage: The individual undergoes a slow, weak pulse, slowed breathing, lack of coordination, irritability, confusion and sleepy behavior.
  • Advanced stage: The individual experiences slow or weak respirations and pulse. During this stage, the individual may also lose consciousness (x).

The symptoms of hypothermia differ in adults and babies. In adults, some of the symptoms may include shivering, confusion and fumbling hands. In babies, the symptoms may involve a cold, reddish skin, as well as very low energy. Both may result in literally freezing to death.

It is also important to note the difference between hyperthermia and hypothermia. In hyperthermia, the body temperature’s set point remains unchanged; whereas in hypothermia, the body’s temperature significantly decreases below the point at which metabolism is possible.

Hypothermia Symptoms

Shivering

Shivering is one of the first symptoms of hypothermia because it is the body’s way of increasing body temperature in an attempt to warm up. Surprisingly, in the case of severe hypothermia, such as the advanced stage, shivering is absent. Thus, if an individual is still shivering during hypothermia, this indication is a good sign that the body is still functioning enough to try and produce body heat (x).

Slow Breathing

Slowed breathing during hypothermia is also one of the first symptoms. Slowed breathing is one of the body’s mechanisms to conserve its energy. According to research, the affected area, the lungs (specifically the ventral medulla) have little effect on the ability to regulate breathing. Even when this area is warm, breathing remains slow. In turn, there is a direct relation between neural functioning and slowed breathing. Neural functioning must be restored by warming the entire body before breathing becomes regular (x).

Weak Pulse

A weakened pulse occurs during stage two of hypothermia. Although a weak pulse conserves the body’s energy, it is also a response to the body’s inability to pump oxygen throughout the body as the body temperature is too cold. Below 30 degrees Celsius, there is severe risk for cardiac arrest. Even simply rolling a person over may cause him or her to enter cardiac arrest. Be very careful when assisting an individual who is hypothermic (x).

Lack of Energy

Lack of energy may also be associated with exceptional fatigue, sleep loss and negative energy balance as far as hypothermia. You will notice a lack of energy from someone who is hypothermic because reduced tissue insulation causes blunted metabolic heat production, resulting in sleepiness. Energy typically returns when tissue insulation (warmth) is restored (x).

Loss of Consciousness

Loss of consciousness is one of the most serious symptoms of hypothermia and typically occurs in the advanced stage. This can result in cardiac arrest or coma. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., specifically due to cardiac arrest. Out of 295,000 individuals that experience cardiac arrest out of the hospital, only 10-20 percent survive. Thus, cardiac arrest as a response to hypothermia can be a deadly consequence (x).

Other Symptoms of Hypothermia

Hypothermia is more than just a little shiver. Older adults with inappropriate food, clothing or shelter are at risk of hypothermia; babies sleeping in cold bedrooms and individuals who remain outdoors for long periods of time are also extremely vulnerable. Additional symptoms for adults include confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. For babies, hypothermia will look very different, usually indicated by bright red, cold skin and a lack of energy.

Hypothermia Symptoms

Hypothermia Causes

Overexposure to Cold Weather

Cold weather can cause a variety of conditions including frost nip, frostbite, chilblains and, of course, hypothermia. The skin typically remains at a constant temperature, 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit in order to circulate blood flow. Overexposure to cold weather for prolonged periods of time causes the skin’s temperature to decrease, thus leading to hypothermia (x).

Falling into Cold Water

Falling into cold water is not just something that happens in the movies. When it does, whether an individual remains in the water or is pulled out, both can lead to hypothermia. Often times falling into cold water occurs far outside city boundaries. In this case, it may take emergency help a while to arrive. It is important to know some of the lifesaving methods in case of an emergency. These methods include:

  • Move the individual to a warm, dry place
  • Remove wet clothing
  • Cover the entire body head to toe with blankets
  • Place the individual on top of a blanket to insulate them from the ground
  • Provide skin to skin contact (if possible, this is the most warming)
  • Offer warm drinks not including caffeine or alcohol (x)

Exhaustion

Exhaustion may also cause hypothermia. This is also known as exertional fatigue; and when in combination with cold weather, may cause hypothermia. When performing extreme activities outdoors in cold weather, individuals may experience “hiker’s hypothermia,” which is more of a result of exhaustion as opposed to cold water or other freezing properties (x).

Other Causes

Hypothermia is a unique condition in that it may occur slowly or immediately. It may also develop indoors or outdoors. Other causes of hypothermia may include wearing improper clothing for cold, staying in the cold for too long, being unable to change out of wet clothes, or living in a house that is too cold.

Hypothermia Remedies and Supplements

Chamomile

Chamomile is among the several herbal remedies that may help reduce the effects of hypothermia. This, along with ginger and green tea, are all common examples of herbal teas that can increase the body temperature and relax its state of shock. The optimal dosage of chamomile is 800 mg taken twice daily (x).

Drink Warm Liquids

Drinking warm liquids is an effective way to treat hypothermia because it warms up the body from the inside out. The only liquid you should not drink warm or otherwise is alcohol (x).

Sit by Fire

It’s no surprise that sitting by a fire is a simple remedy for hypothermia. The freezing nature of hypothermia serves as a polar opposite to a fire, which means that fire is sure to have a melting effect on your body. The center of a simple paper fire is typically 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than warm enough to heat one’s entire body quickly.

Cover Up with Blankets

Although it is a myth that the most heat escapes through the top of your head, you should cover your entire body from head to toe with blankets. This tactic will retain the most heat and warm up your body the fastest. In truth, heat is lost anywhere there is skin exposure, so be sure to use plenty of blankets and cover every inch of skin.

Other Remedies and Supplements for Hypothermia

Other remedies and supplements for hypothermia revolve around prevention. If you keep your body warm enough, you will never be at risk for hypothermia in the first place. When spending time in cold weather try to:

  • Wear a hat or headgear to prevent heat from escaping out the top of the head.
  • Avoid activities that cause excessive sweating. This in fact does not make the body warm. Instead it makes the clothes wet, which is a bad combination in cold weather.
  • Wear plenty of layers. Keep layers loose on the inside, and water-resistant on the outside.
  • Stay dry. Remove wet clothing as soon as possible and wear water-resistant clothing.

The Bottom Line

Hypothermia can occur indoors and when temperatures are not completely freezing (40 degrees Celsius). Many people may exaggerate that they feel hypothermia when they are cold, but actual hypothermia is excessive and accompanies physical symptoms that manifest within the body. These symptoms include shivering, slow breathing, a weak pulse and even loss of consciousness, which all may eventually result in cardiac arrest. If you are regularly in areas of cold weather, it is important to know the ways to prevent hypothermia for yourself, and how to assist others who may experience it.

About the author

Chelsey Erwin


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