If you’re not wearing proper attire, taking a stroll on a beautiful winter day could be more dangerous than you’d think. Of course, feeling cold for a few minutes on your way home or to a coffee shop is perfectly safe, but if your body is exposed to extreme cold for a prolonged period of time, you could develop hypothermia.
Hypothermia is a dangerously low body temperature, below 95° F (35° C). For context, normal body temperature is 98.6° F (37° C). Aside from creating serious discomfort, low body temperature—specifically, hypothermia—is considered a medical emergency. Luckily, it is both preventable and treatable, so if you feel like you are developing signs of hypothermia, there is a lot you can do to recover.
What Is Considered Low Body Temperature?
Normal human body temperature is considered 98.6° F (37° C), but certain factors, including age, time of day, and physical environment, to name a few examples, can cause slight fluctuations. Some people naturally have a body temperature that’s lower than 98.6°F (37° C), but a temperature of 97° F (36.1° C) or lower, is cause for concern.
Similarly, some people’s normal body temperature is slightly higher than 98.6° F (37° C). Any temperature between 98.6-100.4° F (37-38° C) is considered a low-grade fever while any temperature above 100.4° F (38° C) is considered a high fever.
Unlike a significantly lower than normal body temperature, having a higher temperature isn’t necessarily dangerous. In fact, it’s usually an indication that your immune system is fighting against an infection.
Age also impacts what is considered a concerning body temperature. For example, 95.1-96.9° F (35-36° C) is low and 100.4-103° F (38-39.4° C) is high, but neither case is necessarily an emergency in children and adults.
However, if an infant under 3 months old experiences a temperature in either range, it’s considered an emergency and the parents should seek medical care immediately.
What Is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing a dangerously low body temperature. As your body temperature falls below 95° F (35° C), your internal systems and organs stop working properly. This can lead to death if left untreated.
What Causes Low Body Temperature (Hypothermia)?
The most common causes of hypothermia are exposure to extremely cold water or spending a prolonged period in cold weather. You are more likely to develop hypothermia if your clothes or skin are wet, or in windy conditions.
Other, less common causes of hypothermia include:
- Medical conditions, such as diabetes or low thyroid (hypothyroidism)
- Recreational drug usage
- Viral or bacterial infections (usually in newborns and elderly people)
Symptoms to Look Out For
Feeling cold is not necessarily dangerous, especially if it’s for only a few minutes before returning to a warmer area. For example, nearly everyone has shivered without developing hypothermia shortly thereafter. However, if you’re outside in -30° F (-34.4° C) weather and not taking proper precautions, you can develop hypothermia in as little as 10 minutes.
If you think you may be developing hypothermia, pay attention to how violently you’re shivering, which is typically the first and easiest symptom to recognize in people with hypothermia. Other hypothermia symptoms include:
- Slurred speech
- Slow and/or shallow breathing
- Weak pulse
- Excessive urination
- Impaired mobility and clumsiness
- Confusion or memory loss
- Lack of consciousness
Risk Factors and Complications
As is the case with many medical conditions, there are risk factors and underlying medical conditions that cause some people to be more susceptible to developing low body temperatures and hypothermia. Risk factors for hypothermia include:
- Fatigue: Your body is less inclined to produce heat and maintain a normal body temperature when it is physically exhausted. Extreme exertion, fasting, dehydration, and lack of sleep are common contributors to exhaustion.
- Extremely old age and young age: Elderly people are less able to regulate their internal body temperatures than younger people. Exposure to cold can be very dangerous for the elderly. Similarly, children lose heat faster than adults do, and may need help to dress properly for cold weather or to leave a cold environment, so are at higher risk for hypothermia.
- Mental issues: Those suffering from certain mental conditions, such as dementia or psychiatric illness, may lack the judgement to dress appropriately for a cold day and/or to understand the physical risks of exposure to cold weather.
- Alcohol and drugs: The phenomenon of a “beer blanket” is the idea that alcohol can make you feel warm, even if it’s quite cold outside. However, alcohol actually lowers your body temperature by causing your blood vessels to expand, which increases your risk of hypothermia. Also, alcohol and drug use impair judgement, which may lead to going out or staying out in cold weather when it is unsafe to do so.
- Specific medical conditions: Illnesses such as low thyroid (hypothyroidism), malnutrition, diabetes, stroke, severe arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injuries all impair the body’s ability to regulate body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia if exposed to cold conditions.
- Specific medications: Some medications can also affect the body’s ability to regulate body temperature, putting the drug user more at risk of developing hypothermia. These medications include sedatives, anesthetics, opioids, phenothiazine antipsychotics, and clonidine.
In some cases, low body temperature can cause frostbite. This is a condition in which the skin and tissue just beneath the skin freeze after prolonged exposure to cold, and blood flow to the area is impaired. The lack of blood flow and damage from freezing causes tissues to die. Frostbite is a time-sensitive medical emergency, so if you develop signs of this, which include numbness and discoloration (pale/blue) of your extremities that do not improve when warmed, seek care at an emergency room.
If your temperature fluctuates somewhat during the day, there’s no cause for concern. However, if you are in cold weather conditions and your temperature consistently declines to 95° F (35° C) or below, seek medical help immediately. Hypothermia is typically diagnosed by a physical examination and evaluation of vital signs. Blood tests may be used to determine the severity of the hypothermia, however this is not always necessary.
What is Wilson’s temperature syndrome?
People who experience low body temperature may believe it is a symptom of a condition called Wilson’s temperature syndrome. Although it is a popular phenomenon, Wilson’s temperature syndrome is not accepted as a legitimate medical condition. Wilson’s temperature syndrome is believed by some to indicate an underactive thyroid due to a series of unrelated and nonspecific symptoms, which include low body temperature. While Wilson’s temperature syndrome is not a diagnosable condition, an underactive or low thyroid, known as hypothyroidism, can cause hypothermia.
Regardless of the severity of your hypothermia symptoms, seeing a doctor is strongly encouraged. If left untreated, you may be at risk of death. In fact, in the United States, over 1,300 people die annually from hypothermia. Doctors are able to accurately determine the severity of your case and take medical measures to quickly and safely raise your body temperature. These interventions include:
- Passive rewarming: If you’re experiencing mild signs of hypothermia, covering yourself with blankets and drinking warm beverages will be enough to rewarm your body to a normal temperature.
- Active rewarming: A special air warmer may be used to blow heated air over the body.
- Warm intravenous fluids: Doctors can use a standard IV to inject slightly heated fluids into your bloodstream.
- Airway rewarming: Warmed oxygen can be administered by face mask or nasal cannula to help warm the airways.
- Irrigation: Heated fluids can be used to directly warm certain areas of the body such as the lungs, abdominal cavity, bladder, or stomach.
- Blood rewarming: Medical professionals can draw your blood and warm it using a hemodialysis or cardiac bypass machine, and then recirculate it back into your body. This is used in the most severe cases.
Hypothermia is considered a medical emergency because it can be fatal if left untreated. However, if you are experiencing mild hypothermia, you may be able to treat yourself rather than rush to an emergency room—especially if medical care is not readily available to you.
If medical help is unavailable, do the following to treat hypothermia:
- Get to a warm location: Moving out of cold conditions is the first step in treating hypothermia.
- Remove any wet clothing: Wet clothing can prevent you from warming up, even if you’re in a warmer place than where you contracted hypothermia.
- Cover yourself: If they’re available, cover yourself with dry blankets. Cover as much of your body as possible, especially your head.
- Drink warm beverages: Drinking a warm beverage can help warm the body internally. Drinking a fluid that contains sugar, such as hot chocolate, can also help your cells to produce more heat.
- Do not apply heat directly: Direct forms of heat, such as a heating lamp or pad can damage the skin. In severe hypothermia, warming your arms and legs before the center of your body can actually lower your body temperature, or can shock your body into developing irregular heartbeats. It is safe to use warm, but not hot, compresses on your neck, chest, and groin, but avoid them on your arms or legs.
How to Prevent Hypothermia
Unlike certain emergency medical conditions, hypothermia can be prevented. There are a lot of measures you can take to avoid putting yourself at risk of developing low body temperature. The most effective way to prevent developing hypothermia is to avoid cold conditions. However, if you are going to expose yourself to cold weather conditions, do the following:
- Dress in warm layers that insulate the body, including a hat that covers your ears
- Move around when you feel cold to keep your body temperature up
- Eat and drink warm food and beverages
- Take breaks to warm back up if you’re out in the cold for a long time
- Stay dry if you’re outside in the cold, this includes wearing clothes that wick sweat, rather than trapping it against the body
When to See a Doctor
As previously mentioned, having a slightly low body temperature isn’t necessarily cause for concern. However, if your temperature drops to 95° F (35° C) or lower, you officially have hypothermia and must warm your body back to a normal and healthy body temperature. For most with mild to moderate symptoms, you can treat yourself, but if you have the following severe symptoms, seek medical care immediately.
- Extremely faint pulse
- Trouble breathing
- Lack of consciousness
How K Health Can Help
If you have questions about your body temperature, talk to a doctor.
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