Hypothermia: What it is and how to treat it

Our bodies come with a natural, inbuilt thermostat. When it’s warm outside, it tries to cool us down and when it’s cold, it struggles to conserve all the heat. It is due to this automated mechanism that humans are able to live through both sweltering heatwaves and frigid icy-lands.

When this thermostat goes askew due to cold, a condition called hypothermia arises. Hypothermia is a medical condition that occurs when the body is losing more heat than it is producing, resulting in a dangerous drop in body temperature. While it might sound mild on paper, it can be fatal without intervention.

Read on to learn more.

What is Hypothermia?

It is a medical condition that occurs due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. When the body temperature goes down below 35˚C or 95˚F (the normal body temperature is 37˚C or 98.6˚F), hypothermia is said to have set in.

For our body to work, optimum temperature is a must. When it drops, all the major organs, including brain and heart, slow down and blood shunts away from the skin. If such a condition persists for a longer period of time, death is imminent.

What causes Hypothermia?

Exposure to cold temperature is the main cause of hypothermia. While hypothermia is usually seen in polar regions or mountainous terrains, it is not uncommon for it occur in milder temperatures.

Development of hypothermia also depends on the age, body mass, body fat, length of exposure and of course, overall health. Infants, children and elderly are at a higher risk due to the listed factors.

The following conditions can also put a person at a higher risk:

  • Using alcohol or drugs in cold weather
  • Mental illness
  • Inadequate heating, clothing, or food
  • Long outdoor activities
  • Medical conditions like diabetes, thyroid; poor nutrition
  • Swimming during cold weather; accidentally falling into cold water

What happens when Hypothermia sets in?

When exposed to cold temperatures, the body loses heat. While only about 10% is lost when you exhale, 90% of this heat escapes through the skin. Whenever the skin is exposed to cold wind or rain, it radiates heats. This process is expedited by 25 times when exposed to cold water (immersion, basically).

When this happens, the thermostat of a human body, hypothalamus, sends out signals to raise the body temperature. A protective response, such as shivering, is the body’s way of producing heat through muscle activity. Also, the blood vessels temporarily narrow (vasoconstriction) to preserve heat. Thus, the blood ebbs away from the skin and it appears to be paler.

In the next stage, the major heat producers of the body, liver and heart, slow down in response to the decreased core temperature. In order to protect the brain and preserve heat they cause a shut down. The drop in the heat levels leads to slow heartbeat, breathing, and brain activity.

Gradually, fatigue sets in and the person becomes confused. This hampers with the ability to take right decisions that might lead to safety. The person is confused and dizzy and can even die if no medical assistance is sought.

Symptoms of Hypothermia

As discussed earlier, hypothermia can occur even in milder temperatures in frail, infirmed or elderly. While it is a good sign, Shivering is the first indication of hypothermia. It means that the body is reaching out to the muscles to produce more heat. It stops either when a person is warm enough or when hypothermia progresses. Thus, it is important to keep an eye out for all other important signs. Here they are:

  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion and memory loss
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Bright red, cold skin (in infants)
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse

In severe hypothermia, a person may lose conscious without a pulseor obvious signs of breathing. The confusion associated with hypothermia usually prevents self-awareness, which means that the person is not even aware of the condition.

Stage-related Symptoms

There are three stages associated with hypothermia: Mild, Moderate, and Severe.

In Mild stage, the body temperature is between 32.3°C to 35°C(90°F to 95°F). It is accompanied by high blood pressure, rapid breathing, shivering, vasoconstriction, fatigue, apathy, lack of coordination, impaired judgement.

Moderate stage takes things a notch up. The temperature is usually between 28°C to 32.2°C (82.4°F to 90°F). The heartbeat becomes irregular as does the breathing, pupils dilate and the blood pressure lowers and reflexes become slow or inexistent.

When the temperature drops below 28°C (82.4°F), severe stage hypothermia is said to have set in. The symptoms become more serious and include nonreactive pupils, labored breathing, pulmonary edema, and cardiac arrest. If it is due to snow, it can cause irreversible damage to limbs as well.

How to treat Hypothermia?

As it is a potentially life-threatening condition, Hypothermia needs emergency medical attention. As a form of first-aid, you can follow the guidelines below.

  • Remove any wet clothes and accessories.
  • To avoid further heat loss, make them wear warm, dry clothes. Keep them away from wind and drafts, wrapped in a blanket.
  • Move to a warm, dry shelter if possible.
  • Begin rewarming the person with extra clothing or by using an electric blanket and hot packs. If nothing else is available, use your own body heat.
  • Offer warm liquids, but avoid alcohol or coffee as they speed up heat loss.

If the hypothermic person is unconscious, or has no pulse or signs of breathing, medical assistance should be sought. Give CPR immediately if you can’t feel a pulse and the person is not breathing. However, remember to check for heartbeat for at least a minute as hypothermia slows down heartbeat and CPR should never be given if the heart is still beating.

In severe cases, the hospital staff will try to bring up the core temperature using warm IV fluids, humidified, heated oxygen. In some cases, hemodialysis machine can used to rewarm the blood.

The Takeaway!

Winter is here and with cold comes a chockful of medical conditions. But prevention is always better than cure. So, bundle up and keep yourself and your family safe in these times!

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