Hypothermia happens when your body temperature drops way below normal, causing the circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems to slow down. Normal body temperature is around 98.6°F (37°C). Hypothermia happens if your temperature drops to 96°F (35.5°C) or below.
Hypothermia often happens gradually, but it can happen within minutes, such as if someone falls through the ice into cold water. Then your body starts to lose heat faster than it can produce it. Severe hypothermia can cause an irregular heartbeat, which can lead to heart failure and death. More than 700 deaths in the United States each year are caused by hypothermia and frostbite.
Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of hypothermia may include:
What Causes It?
Hypothermia can happen from:
Wearing wet clothes can raise your risk for hypothermia. Older people are especially at risk.
Hypothermia may develop over hours or days if your body cannot regulate heat as it should, if you cannot sense how cold it is, or if you live in a cold environment in the winter. Some conditions can also cause your body to have trouble producing heat.
Who is Most At Risk?
Risk factors include:
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Severe hypothermia is a life-threatening condition. If you or someone you care for has symptoms of hypothermia, give first aid to warm them up and call 911 immediately.
You can usually prevent hypothermia by:
If you plan to be outdoors in cold weather, wear layers of insulated or moisture-wicking clothing, including a hat. Keep emergency supplies in your car when traveling. Avoid overexertion, eat enough food, drink enough fluids, and do not drink alcohol.
Social service agencies can help people who are prone to hypothermia, such as the elderly or the homeless, find housing, heat, and clothing. If you have elderly family members or neighbors, check on them when it is cold.
For mild hypothermia, warming up may be enough. Get out of the cold and remove wet clothing and replace it with dry, warm clothing and blankets. Give the person something warm to drink, but DO NOT give alcohol. Other techniques include using hot water bottles filled with warm water, warm (not hot) baths, or heat packs placed under the arms and on the chest, neck, and groin.
Sharing body heat (lying with your skin touching the person's skin) may help. The person can also get into the heat escape lessening position (HELP), sitting with knees bent upwards so they are against the chest. This helps keep the body's trunk warm.
Watch the person's breathing. If they stop breathing and have no pulse, give CPR if you are trained to do so. Be careful, however, because a person with hypothermia may have a very slow heart rate that is hard to detect. You may need to check for a pulse for as long as 45 seconds or a minute.
At the hospital, the medical team will use heated IV (intravenous) fluids. The person may be wrapped with blankets in a warm room or put into a large tub of warm water. Warm humidified air may also be used.
Severe or complicated cases of hypothermia may need IV drug therapy.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
The most important thing you can do for someone who has hypothermia is get them to a warm, safe place. There are no herbs or supplements that specifically treat hypothermia, but eating a healthy diet, including warm foods and soups may help lower your risk for hypothermia. Animal studies suggest that some herbs may affect body temperature and may help prevent hypothermia if used before, or just after, exposure to cold.
Always tell your health care provider about the herbs and supplements you are using.
Nutrition and Supplements
These nutritional tips may help you stay healthy in cold climates:
Keeping your body healthy may help ward off hypothermia. Some people may benefit from taking a multivitamin daily, containing the antioxidant vitamins A, C, E, the B-vitamins and trace minerals, such as magnesium, calcium, folic acid, zinc, and selenium.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs only under the supervision of a provider.
You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, or teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts).
These herbs may help prevent hypothermia. DO NOT give herbs or supplements to anyone who already has hypothermia.
Few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. A professional homeopath, however, may recommend one or more of the following treatments for hypothermia based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type, including your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.
Prognosis and Possible Complications
People with mild hypothermia usually recover with no lasting damage. However, people with moderate-to-severe hypothermia can face serious complications and even death. Children are more likely to recover from severe hypothermia than adults. The death rate for hypothermia in older people is about 50%.
There are many possible complications from hypothermia, including:
People with severe hypothermia should be hospitalized. They may need CPR. They should be moved very carefully and watched closely for an irregular heartbeat, which could be fatal.
Normal body temperature in the elderly should be restored slowly, or permanent low blood pressure may result. All people with hypothermia must be watched closely until their body temperature returns to normal.
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Review Date: 11/20/2016
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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