And what to do if you think you or someone you're with is suffering from them.

By Maggie O'Neill
December 02, 2020
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The word 'hypothermia' usually conjures thoughts of Siberia or Alaska—but the condition isn't just a threat in places known for having really cold temperatures. Even in a more temperate climate (like that of the US), you can suffer from hypothermia, if the temperature and conditions are right.

The condition—which is technically an abnormally low body temperature—occurs when you spend too long in cold temperatures and your body starts losing heat faster than it’s being produced, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When your body temperature gets too low below the normal body temperature range of 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, it can affect the brain. If an individual’s brain isn’t functioning properly, they might not realize their body is suffering from hypothermia and, therefore, get help.

But hypothermia doesn’t just strike on cold, snowy days. It’s possible to suffer from hypothermia in higher temperatures—even those as high as 40 degrees Fahrenheit—if you start suffering chills due to rain or sweat, per the CDC.

What are the symptoms of hypothermia?

Babies and the elderly are at higher risk of suffering from hypothermia than people in other age brackets, Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai in New York, tells Health.

The following are known symptoms of hypothermia in adults, according to the CDC:

  • Shivering
  • Tiredness or exhaustion
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Fumbling hands
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech

The CDC adds that babies can suffer from these specific symptoms:

  • Bright red, cold skin
  • Very low enery

Dr. Zeichner adds that hypothermia can also affect the skin, explaining: “Your body drives blood flow away from your skin where it is not needed as much as your core organs. The skin will often pale because there is less blood flow.” He adds that it might also feel flaky or dry due to the exposure to cold temperatures.

It’s also important to note that time is of the utmost importance for patients suffering from hypothermia. Dr. Zeichner says that if a patient doesn’t get timely treatment, hypothermia can cause life-long damage. “In severe cases, hypothermia can result in permanent damage to internal organs and your skin, similar to other cold-related injuries, like frostbite,” he explains.

What to do if you think you or someone else is suffering from hypothermia

Unfortunately, since confusion and memory loss are symptoms of hypothermia, individuals might be unable to help themselves once their hypothermia sets in—which is why it’s extra important to take note if someone around you starts displaying symptoms of the condition.

Among the most important symptoms to notice is shivering, Baruch Fertel, MD, an emergency medicine doctor at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health, explaining that shivering is one of the first symptoms of hypothermia. “The body’s trying to make friction; that’s what that shivering is about,” Dr. Fertel explains.

If someone stops shivering—and they’re still very cold—it’s important to seek medical help immediately, Dr. Fertel adds. When this happens, the body has essentially given up on a tactic it was using to try to stay warm. Another warning sign that should prompt medical attention is altered mental status, Dr. Fertel says. The CDC also recommends getting help anytime someone’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

While you're waiting for medical assistance, the CDC recommends trying to warm the person up as much as possible—that can include moving them to a warmer room or shelter; removing any wet clothing and replacing it with warm, dry layers, focusing on the center of their body; and giving them warm liquids, as long as they're conscious and able to drink them.

When a patient is taken to the emergency room for hypothermia, the first thing the doctors will do is try to warm the body back up. This is done through the use of blankets, medical heating pads, and warm IV fluids, Dr. Fertel says. “It’s really about warming the core body temperature,” he explains. And, once progress has been made in warming the body back up, it’s crucial to keep the temperature rising until it’s within the normal range: “Once you start warming, do not let it drop. It’s got to be steady rewarming.”

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