Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a potentially life-threatening condition which occurs if the body temperature of a person drops beneath 95F/35C. The normal body temperature is roughly 98.6C/37C which means that you don’t have to drop too far in temperature before symptoms can set in.

As you can probably guess, hypothermia usually occurs when you are in a cold environment for a long period of time. However, it can also be triggered by a number of other things, for example if you are in an extremely cold room where your body is unable to maintain its temperature or are submersed in cold water.

What causes hypothermia?

As you are probably aware, your body has a number of different processes in place which enables it to maintain body temperature, for example shivering or restricting blood flow to the skin. Hypothermia occurs when the body does not have enough energy to bring the body up to its normal temperature. There are a variety of different types of hypothermia. Let’s take a little look at them, starting with the forms of mild hypothermia.

Acute or immersion hypothermia occurs when the body loses its heat very rapidly. This often occurs after being immersed in incredibly cold water. Exhaustion hypothermia occurs when the body is unable to generate heat as it is suffering from a lack of energy, most common in cold environments where you are not getting the nutrition that you need. Chronic hypothermia is common amongst the elderly and happens when the body loses heat over time i.e. living in accommodation which isn’t heated adequately.

In addition to this, hypothermia can also occur in controlled situations. The most common of those is during operations where the body is often unable to keep its own temperature in check. This is known as perioperative hypothermia and it can occur even if the doctors carry out all necessary checks to prevent it from happening. 

What are the signs and symptoms of hypothermia?

When your body is unable to maintain its temperature it goes into ‘shut down’ mode. This means that the organs of your body will slowly start to shut down, which could eventually lead to death if management of hypothermia is not undertaken. These are the signs that you should be on the lookout for in those that are of particular risk of hypothermia.

Mild Hypothermia occurs when the body has only slightly dropped below its normal temperature. The symptoms here are not obvious. However, the symptoms to be on the lookout for are constant shivering, low energy, tiredness, cold or pale skin and hyperventilation.

If the temperature continues to drop the moderate hypothermia will set in. This is characterized by violent and uncontrollable shivering. Confusion also tends to set in at this point. People may even find that they have difficulty moving around and completely lose co-ordination. Again, hyperventilation occurs here and external parties may noticed slurred speech. Quite often somebody won’t know that they are suffering due to their confusion.

The most extreme form of this condition is known as ‘severe hypothermia’. Quite often people at this stage appear ‘dead’. Although the body may have just shut down and they could still receive help, they are simply in a comatose state. There may be a weak or no pulse at all.

In cases of mild hypothermia you will be able to carry out management of hypothermia within the comfort of your own home. You just need to make somebody as warm as possible. However, you should not give them a warm bath or alcohol as this could potentially lead to cardiac arrest. If symptoms persist then they need to be taken to a hospital.

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In the case of the other two forms of hypothermia the doctor will carry out a body temperature check, this way they can rule out other conditions causing the problem. In the case of severe hypothermia they may check the person to see if they are still alive, as obviously one of the major symptoms is the appearance of being dead.

So can hypothermia be prevented?

Of course it can. All you need to do is ensure that your body’s temperature is kept normalized. This means that in the cold weather you should ensure that you have sufficiently warm clothing. In the case of elderly or ill people it is possible to prevent the onset of hypothermia by ensuring that the temperature is kept warm enough where they live.

Remember, if you believe that your or somebody else are suffering from mild hypothermia it is incredibly important that you seek the treatment that is needed as soon as it could very quickly lead to death if it is not treated.

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