What Causes Hypothermia? Hypothermia is drop in the body temperature to a dangerously low level which is caused due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. It is a condition which needs immediate medical supervision. In this, the body loses out heat faster than it can produce heat. The normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees on an average, but in hypothermia the body temperature reduces below 95 degrees. And in cases of severe hypothermia there can be a drop in temperature to around 82 degrees or even lower. One of the main causes of hypothermia is exposure to cold weather or cold water for a long period of time. But even exposure to an environment which is cooler than the body temperature can also be one of the factors that can cause hypothermia. This is possible if one is not dressed up to suit the temperature or the cold temperature is beyond one’s control. Some of the situations that can cause hypothermia are;
Not wearing sufficient warm clothes to match the weather conditions
Staying out in the cold weather for very a long duration
Not able to change from wet clothes or move to a warm and dry place due to some circumstances
Accidentally falling into the water
Insufficient heating inside the home, particularly for the older adults and infants
Air conditioning at very low temperature, particularly for the older adults and infants
The other causes that can lead to hypothermia are;
Few medical conditions like diabetes and thyroid problems
Use of drugs or alcohol
How does the body lose heat? The body can lose heat in the following ways;
Radiated heat – Maximum heat that is lost from the body is due to the heat radiated from the unprotected portion of the body Direct contact – If a person is in direct contact with anything that is very cold like cold water or ground then heat is lost from the body. Since water is a very good medium for transferring heat from the body. There is comparatively more loss of heat in cold water than in cold air. Also the body loses more heat while wearing clothes that are wet rather than by getting wet in the rain. Wind – Wind reduces the body heat by taking away the thin layer of warm air which is on the surface of the skin. Therefore a wind chill is an important cause for heat loss.
What Are the Risk Factors for hypothermia? Individuals who are more at risk of getting hypothermia are;
The older adults, infants, toddlers and children with insufficient heating facilities, clothing or food Those with some mental illness Those who remain outdoor for a longer period Those who remain in cold weather and whose judgment is weakened by alcohol or drugs
What are the complications of hypothermia? Individuals who get hypothermia due to exposure to cold climate or cold water are likely to get other cold related injuries like;
Frostbite – freezing of body tissues Gangrene – decay and death of tissues due to disruption in the blood flow
What Are the Symptoms of Hypothermia? The symptoms of hypothermia for adults are;
Shivering which will gradually stop once hypothermia progresses Slow and shallow breathing Confusion Memory loss Tiredness or exhaustion Garbled or mumbled speech Lack of coordination Weak pulse In cases of severe hypothermia, the person may become unconscious without any signs of breathing or pulse
The symptoms of hypothermia for infants are;
Very low energy levels Cold and bright red skin
How Is Hypothermia Diagnosed? The doctor will be able to diagnose hypothermia on the basis of the signs and symptoms of the patient, the condition in which the patient became ill with hypothermia. At times, blood tests are done to conform hypothermia and to check its severity. There is a specialized thermometer which is available in all hospital emergency rooms used to detect very low blood temperatures and to confirm the diagnosis of hypothermia. The temperatures for mild, moderate and severe hypothermia are in the ranges as given below;
Mild hypothermia - ranges between 89 to 95 degrees Moderate hypothermia – ranges between 82-89 degrees Severe hypothermia- is equal or lower than 82 degrees
The response to hypothermia differs from temperatures also differ.
What Is the Treatment for Hypothermia? Hypothermia is a life-threatening health problem which requires emergency medical care. But if there is not provision for immediate medical care, then the following actions can be taken;
If there are any wet clothes, hats, gloves, socks or shoes on the patient, it needs to be removed immediately. Try and protect the patient as much as possible from wind, drafts and any kind of loss of heat from the body with warm clothes and blankets Move the patient carefully to a warm and dry area as fast as possible Try to keep the patient warm again with more extra clothing and blankets. The other items that can be used is an electric blanket till the torso area, hot packs and heating pad on the other parts like torso, armpits, neck and groin. But be careful while using such items since it can burn the skin. One can also use their body heat to keep the patient warm if there is no other option. Check the patient’s body temperature if a thermometer is available Offer warm liquids to drink except alcohol and caffeine, since this can increase the heat loss from the body. But one must not give liquids to a person who is unconscious.
In cases of severe hypothermia, there will be a need for hospital treatment to bring the temperature of the patient back to normal. The treatment will include options like warmed IV fluids, heated and humidified oxygen etc. There can be several complications in the recovery stage which includes pneumonia, heart arrhythmias, cardiac arrest and even death.