Hypothermia refers to a condition associated with dangerous drop in the level of body temperature, which may be associated with prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. The normal temperature of the body is 98.6 degree Fahrenheit and drop in the core body temperature to below 95 degree Fahrenheit is referred to as hypothermia.
Under normal conditions, the activities of the heart and liver produce maximum amount of heat and 90% of the heat escapes through the skin or through the lungs when breathing. During hypothermia, vasoconstriction of arteries that supply to the skin helps in reducing heat loss. Eventually, if heat loss continues, the body’s core temperature drops causing a protective shutdown of blood supply to heart and liver, to preserve heat supply to the brain.
Eventually, blood supply to the brain also gets compromised which affects the functioning of essential organs like the heart and lungs, resulting in a life threatening condition.
- Exposure to Cold: Under normal condition, the body’s heat production and heat loss is balanced by the hypothalamus, located in the brain. Accidental hypothermia results from prolonged exposure to cold temperature, which results in higher heat loss than heat production. Not wearing high tech specialized gear in windy and icy environment is a leading cause.
- Hypothermia may also affect individuals in relatively milder environments and depending upon the person’s age, body mass and body fat content. Infants and elderly are a higher risk of developing hypothermia in relatively milder environments.
- Medical conditions like diabetes and thyroid disorders are also linked with onset of hypothermia.
- Severe blood loss following an injury or severe trauma is also a leading cause of hypothermia.
- Certain medications have also been linked with hypothermia in the elderly.
Symptoms Of Hypothermia
The symptoms of hypothermia are progressive in nature and manifested as follows,
- Shivering is the first sign of hypothermia which stops as the severity increases. Shivering is a defensive mechanism of the body to conserve heat.
- Reduced and shallow breathing is a subsequent symptom.
- Confusion, memory loss, exhaustion and drowsiness are subsequent symptoms. The condition is associated with slurring of speech or mumbling.
- Failure to coordinate muscle movements, with fumbling of hands and steps.
- The condition is further associated with weaker pulse resulting in loss of consciousness as the condition progresses.
In children symptoms include a cold skin, bright red discoloration of the skin with unusually low levels of energy.
How To Prevent Hypothermia?
Treatment depends upon a host of factors including the body mass index, fat percentage, age and general health condition of an individual along with the duration of exposure to cold temperature.
Further exposure to cold water is considered to be associated with higher levels of heat loss, compared to exposure to cold wind.
Some of the important tips to prevent hypothermia include,
- Wear protective gear against wind, draft, etc to prevent heat loss. Remove wet cloths immediately, since cold water causes higher level of heat loss compared to cold wind.
- Re-warming using another person’s body heat is also considered useful to prevent the progression of hypothermia.
- Warm liquids can help increase the core temperature of an individual; however caffeine and alcohol should be avoided. Avoid giving fluids to a person who is already unconscious.