Many people have had the experience of being so cold they lose feeling in their fingers and toes. This is a good indication you have been in a cold environment for too long, and need to get warm soon. Having your fingers and toes stay cold for too long can put you at risk of frostbite, but if your whole body stays cold for too long, you could be at risk of the far more dangerous condition of hypothermia.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency, and needs to be treated as such. If you or someone you know is suspected of having hypothermia, call 911 immediately. The effects of hypothermia can worsen quickly, and getting someone to a location where they could receive medical treatment as soon as possible could be the difference between life and death. You may be directed by emergency services to provide first aid while health care professionals are on the way, but this should only happen after you have called 911 if possible.
What are the Symptoms of Hypothermia?
The signs of hypothermia are generally easy to recognize, though some change as the condition progresses. Shivering, for example, that is apparent in mild hypothermia will often subside as your condition worsens. In fact, in extreme cases of hypothermia you may feel very warm as your body dilates blood vessels in a last ditch attempt to warm freezing tissue in your limbs. Common symptoms of hypothermia include:
- shivering (Though this may stop as symptoms increase in severity.)
- shallow or slow breathing
- slurred speech
- fumbling hands, loss of coordination, stumbling steps
- a slow, weak pulse
- drowsiness or exhaustion
- confusion and memory loss
- loss of consciousness
- lack of a strong pulse or respiration
What are the Five Stages of Hypothermia?
Hypothermia results from a drop in your core body temperature that you cannot correct with your own body heat. As you progress from mild hypothermia to a more extreme state of heat loss, you will experience some very identifiable symptoms. What is most dangerous is that confusion and slowed mental activity often compounds people’s ability to help correct their low body temperature.
Agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer differing standards in emergency medicine for evaluating hypothermia. One scale breaks cases into three categories of mild, moderate, and severe hypothermia, with core body temperature readings and symptoms being the differentiators between the three categories. There is also a five stage scale that is used, particularly in Canada, to further classify the progression of heat loss in a hypothermic individual.
HT I: Mild Hypothermia, 95-89.6 degrees
Normal or nearly normal consciousness, shivering
HT II: Moderate Hypothermia, 89.6-82.4 degrees
Shivering stops, consciousness becomes impaired
HT III: Severe Hypothermia, 82.4-75.2 degrees
Unconscious, may be difficult to detect vital signs
HT IV: Apparent Death, 75.2-59 degrees
HT V: Death from irreversible hypothermia
Who is at Risk for Hypothermia?
Anyone who spends time outside in extremely cold weather may be at risk for hypothermia. Young children and older adults are also at increased risk for accidental hypothermia even at temperatures that may not be dangerous to others.
Other risk factors that can make you more susceptible to hypothermia include taking certain medications, having diabetes, and possibly even some thyroid conditions. Mental illness and some kinds of somatosensory disorders or nerve damage are often cited as risk factors as well, since people with these conditions may not be aware of the sensations from their bodies, or may not take appropriate action if they do.
Medical conditions can impair your body’s ability to maintain a normal body temperature or to sense cold include:
- Parkinson’s disease
- a stroke
- spinal cord injuries
Medications such as some antidepressants can also make you more susceptible to suffering from hypothermia.
What Temperatures Cause Hypothermia?
Some people believe incorrectly that hypothermia can only happen from exposure to cold water or in cold temperatures at snowy locations in the winter. In reality, hypothermia can strike at a wide range of temperatures. Any conditions where your body temperature drops faster than your body can maintain heat can put you at risk of hypothermia.
Rapid drops in temperature can cause hypothermia, even if the air temperature is not very low. As surprising as it may seem, in some cases, particularly for older adults living in hotter regions, it is possible that entering a building where the air conditioning is set too low could cause accidental hypothermia. Prolonged exposure to extremely cold water, even in hot locations, can sometimes also cause hypothermia.
Complications of Hypothermia
On the road to hypothermia, your body will often go through extremely cold temperatures. This can cause damage to tissues throughout the body. A few of the most common complications associated with hypothermia include:
- frostbite, or tissue destruction caused by tissues freezing
- chilblains, or nerve and blood vessel damage
- gangrene, or tissue death
- trench foot, a nerve and vascular condition from continuous water immersion
How Do You Warm Someone With Hypothermia?
Providing first aid to someone who is hypothermic could save their life, but it must be done correctly. In cases of severe hypothermia, there is a chance that providing the wrong assistance could increase a person’s risk of suffering from cardiac arrest. The first thing to do is always to call 911.
If you are attempting to provide first aid to someone suffering from hypothermia, rewarming them should be the goal, but must be done carefully. Any wet clothes should be removed immediately, and they should be wrapped in warm blankets. Heat should be applied to help the person get back closer to normal body temperature by putting hot water bottles or heating pads around the individual’s chest, armpits, and groin. If hot water or heating pads are not available, using your own body heat may help in rewarming someone suffering from hypothermia. If the person suffering from hypothermia is still conscious, giving them warm liquids like tea, coffee, or soup can also help to raise body temperature.
If you are suffering from hypothermia and are taken to a medical facility, there are more options available to help warm you up. In addition to applying warm compresses to the torso, armpits, and groin, warm saline solution can be given intravenously. Warming the stomach cavity is also possible by pumping warm water into the stomach. In extreme cases, it may also be possible to remove and warm your blood before pumping it back into your body.
No matter the cause, it is essential that medical professionals are contacted immediately if hypothermia is suspected. Damage to organs and tissues can occur the longer symptoms persist, so getting help as quickly as possible from emergency medical personnel trained and equipped to handle hypothermia is crucial to keeping someone alive and safe if they are suffering from a sudden, irreversible drop in body temperature.