Hypothermia in the Winter

Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature is abnormally low; causing the body to lose heat faster that it can be produced.  This can occur quickly or over time through exposure.  For example, someone who is outside when the temperature is extremely low can be affected by hypothermia quickly.  A person who is exposed to cool temperatures for a long period of time or are stranded in cool water can become affected by hypothermia slowly.  Once the body temperature gets too low, vital organs including the brain become affected, making the person unable to think clearly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most victims of hypothermia are the elderly, those without adequate food, clothing, or heating, babies sleeping in cold rooms, people who remain outdoors for long periods of time, and people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.

Who is at risk?

  • The elderly
  • Babies and young children
  • The mentally impaired
  • People with medical conditions such as stroke, spinal cord injuries, malnutrition, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and other conditions that interfere with sensation
  • People on certain medications that affect the body's ability to regulate temperature

The warning signs of hypothermia include:

  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Exhaustion
  • Confusion
  • Speech difficulties
  • Memory loss
  • Extremely cold skin
  • Shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Poor motor skill (stumbling)
  • Poor decision making

What to do:

If a person's body temperature is below 95 degrees, get emergency help.  Get the victim to a warm area (off the ground if possible) and remove any wet clothing.  Use heating pads or electric blankets if available; first place them under the arms, over the chest, in the groin area not directly on the skin. These areas will hold heat longer and are closer to vital organs.  Do not rub the skin.  Also wrap the head and neck with blankets, keeping the face exposed.  Give warm non-alcoholic beverages to warm the body from the inside.  Even after the person's temperature reaches normal (usually 98.6 degrees) continue to seek medical attention. 

Prevention:

Always be prepared for changes in the weather.  Dress in layers and wear clothing that is warm enough for the weather.  Limit your time outdoors or take breaks to go inside and warm up.  Stay out of the wind as much as possible.  If you get wet, remove wet clothing as soon as possible.  Overexertion can cause the body to sweat even when it is cold outside, causing clothing to become wet which can result in hypothermia.

Wooster Family Medicine