Hypothermia occurs when your body is losing heat faster than it can make heat. This causes the body’s temperature to drop dangerously low. This drop in body temperature is considered a medical emergency. Normal body temperature is around 37⁰C (98.6⁰F), and hypothermia happens when core body temperature drops below 35⁰C (95⁰F). When your temperature drops this low, your body cannot function properly, and if left untreated hypothermia can cause serious life threatening damage.
What causes hypothermia?
The most common culprit of hypothermia is exposure to cold weather or water. Each person is different so, the amount of time exposed to the cold, age, weight, body fat, and overall health are factors which affect a person’s ability to acquire, or not acquire hypothermia.
Hypothermia can be caused by:
- Being exposed to cold temperatures for too long
- Wearing clothes that are not warm enough for particular weather conditions
- Wearing wet clothes in the cold, or not changing out of wet clothes and getting into a warm environment (for example, getting caught in the rain)
- Inadequate heating in the home
- Air conditioning which is too cold
- Being exposed to cold water (for example falling through the ice in the winter)
There are a few different types of hypothermia based on how it occurs. They include:
- Acute or Immersion Hypothermia – this happens when body heat is lost quickly, like when falling through ice into cold water
- Exhaustion Hypothermia – the body is too tired to generate heat
- Chronic Hypothermia – this happens when heat is lost over time, and often seen in the elderly who live in poorly heated homes
What does hypothermia look like?
Since the drop in body temperature affects the body as a whole, there are a number of symptoms that a person experiencing hypothermia will show, including:
- Memory loss
- Low energy
- Slurring of speech
- Pale, cold or blue skin
- Fast breathing (hyperventilation)
Who is at risk for developing hypothermia?
Anyone can acquire hypothermia, but certain individuals are at high risk, including:
- Someone who falls into cold water
- Elderly individual
- Homeless individuals
- Those with mental problems
- Heavy drug or alcohol users
- Those with memory impairment, like Alzheimer’s Disease
- People who take sedative medication
- People who spend long periods in cold weather, like mountain climbers, or skiers
- Those who obtain a head injury
- Those with certain medical conditions that impair the body’s ability to regulate temperature, like hypothyroidism
- Certain medications
How is hypothermia treated?
Hypothermia is a very serious, and life threatening condition. It is important to call for help right away or get your child to the nearest emergency room as soon as possible. While you wait for help, or while on your way to the emergency room these are some things you can do to help your child:
- Get your child into a warm place
- Remove any wet clothing
- The centre of the body is the most important, so begin to warm your child’s chest, neck, head and groin. This can be done using lots of layers of dry blankets, clothing, towels, sheets, or using skin-to-skin contact.
- Give your child small amounts of a warm beverage to help warm the insides of the body. Avoid alcoholic or caffeinated beverages.
- Monitor their breathing, and pulse. If necessary administer CPR (if trained).
When at the hospital they may use some of the following to help get your child’s temperature back to normal:
- Warm IV fluids
- Rewarming the airway using humidified oxygen given through a mask or nasal tube
- Blood rewarming by using hemodialysis. This machine removes some blood, warms it, and recirculates it back into the body
What are the complications of hypothermia?
Most people, especially children, with mild hypothermia recover with no permanent damage. However, those with more serious hypothermia may experience further complications including frostbite leading to gangrene, hypoxia causing tissue or organ damage, pancreas inflammation, lung damage, kidney failure, heart problems or even death.
If you think your child has been exposed to extreme cold, or you think they may have hypothermia, be sure to visit your nearest emergency department right away.
– Dr. Christina Cesareo and Dr. G Paul Dempsey
[Featured image: Clara S.]