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What is Hypothermia?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Hypothermia is a reduction in body temperature, usually through exposure to cold water or cold weather. When untreated, especially in its later stages, it is extremely serious and can result in organ death, heart arrhythmias, or extreme disorientation that results in the sufferer remaining outdoors and shedding clothing because he doesn’t feel the cold. If the person is not found and quickly treated, death is likely.

The first stage of hypothermia has been experienced by many people at one time or another. It is defined as a drop in body temperature of 1° to 3° (1°F is equal to 1.8°C). Normal body temperature is about 98.6°F (37°C). Stage one hypothermia drops the body's temperature to 96.5° to 95°F (35.83° to 35°C). A person may feel the hands get numb, goose bumps, mild shivering, and he may also note that the lips appear blue. Kids who get into a cold body of water can quickly show evidence of this amount of temperature drop. The best thing for parents to do is get them out of the water and cover them with a warm towel.

In the second stage, the body temperature drops to between 95° and 91.4°F (35° and 33°C). Hypothermia in this stage is dangerous. People may not be able to use their muscles properly, they may be confused, and their extremities may feel completely numb. The skin becomes very pale and the lips and extremities may turn blue. Shivering is usually extreme, since it is an attempt to keep the body warm.

The third stage is defined by body temperature at or below 90°F (32.22°C). Though people may not shiver in this stage, they still have difficulty moving. The heart beats faster, confusion is significant and organs begin to fail. Without treatment, this stage is fatal.

Hospitals treat hypothermia by using warming blankets and, in some cases, warm intravenous fluid to help raise the temperature of the organs and improve circulation. They also carefully monitor the heart for any sign of irregular heart rhythms.

When a person cannot get to a hospital immediately, simply getting inside out of the cold may help. People may also need to use CPR if the person is not breathing. The best treatment is attempting to warm the person, and performing CPR as necessary until help comes. Individuals who can’t find an indoor environment should use blankets, jackets, or whatever they may have to keep the person from lying directly on the ground. People who are providing treatment should never use heating pads or give a person with suspected hypothermia alcohol as this can worsen the condition.

In conditions that might induce hypothermia, individuals should not give up their own sources of warmth if they do not have access to an indoor environment. In this case, it may be best for people who are exposed to the cold to lie together as closely as possible to share body heat.

What causes these dramatic drops in body temperature are actually the body’s way of attempting to help itself. As the body is exposed to cold, the capillaries and veins supplying the extremities start to constrict. This constriction continues as cold exposure continues, with the end result of stopping the blood flow to the organs, resulting in tissue death.

The best ways for people to prevent hypothermia are to dress warmly, covering all extremities in cold weather. Individuals should not swim in lakes or pools that are very cold. Many people forget to wear a hat or otherwise cover the head, which provides an easy way for body heat to escape. Hikers should avoid areas with rapid weather changes without a full supply of extreme weather gear and a cellphone or mobile radio in case of emergencies.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon142249 — On Jan 12, 2011

well they should be numbered like first degree and second degree.

By anon62556 — On Jan 27, 2010

are lots of people likely to get hypothermia?

By anon29512 — On Apr 03, 2009

How many people died last year due to hypothermia?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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