When cold temperature turns deadly: Guarding against hypothermia

hypothermia prevention

Many of us can probably recall times when we've been so cold that we just couldn't stop shivering; our fingers and toes felt frozen; and even our mouth wouldn't move right.

When we're cold for a short time but can then go inside to a warm up, the event is little more than uncomfortable. What happens, however, when a person can't (or chooses not to) warm up and they continue losing heat faster than their body can generate it? At some point the body's store of energy is exhausted and that discomfort can turn into a life threatening situation called hypothermia, where the body's core temperature becomes abnormally low.

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While hypothermia is most commonly associated with prolonged exposure to very cold weather, it can also be a cause for concern in milder conditions. In fact, most cases of hypothermia occur between at temperatures between 30° and 50°F.

Since approximately 700 Americans die each year from this largely preventable condition, we've created the following brief quiz to test your knowledge of the causes, symptoms, and prevention of hypothermia:

Question 1

Is a mere 2°F or 3°F drop in core body temperature cause for concern?

Select: Yes No

When a person's body temperature drops below 96°F, he or she may begin to display the signs of hypothermia -- which merits immediate medical attention. As body temperature lowers, it becomes increasingly difficult to return it back to 98.6°F. (Note: temperatures shown below are generalizations since 1) low readings may not be possible with home thermometers, 2) oral thermometers are a poor indicator of core temperature and 3) not all of us respond the same at various core body temperatures.)

Symptoms of Mild Hypothermia (body temperature 90-95°F) may include:

  • shivering
  • slowed or slurred speech
  • mild confusion
  • at this stage, the person may deny there is a serious problem
  • symptoms may even be summarized as, "mumbles, stumbles, grumbles and fumbles"

Moderate Hypothermia (body temperature 82-90°F)

  • shivering becomes more violent but may suddenly stop entirely as hypothermia becomes more severe
  • skin appears pale or blue and feels hard and very cold to the touch. This occurs as the body tries to preserve heat for vital organs
  • muscles become rigid, uncoordinated
  • pulse and breathing slow
  • confusion and irrational behavior, such as they start shedding clothes
  • drowsiness

Severe Hypothermia (body temperature 68-82°F)

  • significantly decreased respiratory rate and pulse
  • shivering has ceased at this point
  • glassy eyes or dilated pupils
  • heart beating becomes erratic
  • difficulty speaking or thinking clearly or feeling pain
  • body may feel stiff
  • nearly total loss of coordination
  • person may lose consciousness
  • the situation at this point is extremely severe! Anyone showing signs of severe hypothermia must be handled very carefully since cardiac arrest is a very real concern. Over half of all cases of severe hypothermia result in death and those who survive have a good chance of suffering long-term kidney, liver and pancreas damage.

Question 2

Is it possible to get hypothermia while inside your home?

Select: Yes No

Statistics from the state of Maine, as an example, reveal that 15%-20% of hypothermia deaths occur with people who are indoors. Inadequately heated homes (where temperatures stay below 65% for extended periods of time) pose a risk for accidental hypothermia.

Persons most at risk include:

  • infants: because of less body mass, infants have a difficult time maintaining body heat.
  • elderly: over half of all hypothermia deaths are of persons over age 60. As we age, our metabolism rate lowers and the ability to shiver and constrict peripheral blood vessels decreases so it becomes more difficult to regulate body temperature.
  • health conditions: people suffering from such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease, stroke, arthritis, hypothyroidism, mental illness, severe fatigue, or those with circulatory or respiratory problems. Any condition that hampers physical activity (which generates body heat) increases the risk of hypothermia.
  • those taking certain medications, including sedatives or even some cold medications.
  • malnourished or dehydrated individuals.
  • involvement of alcohol or drugs: These substances tend to relax blood vessels which expedites heat loss. And, obviously, lack of consciousness due to alcohol or drugs consumption dramatically increases the risk of hypothermia.
  • moisture: people who become wet (either from sweat, rain or snow) while exposed to cold. Wind exposure makes the situation even worse.

If you know someone who lives alone, be a good neighbor and check in on them frequently to make certain that they are taking protective measures from the cold. These could include keeping at least one room of the house at 65°F (this minimum increases to 68-70°F for people with health concerns), wearing long underwear, slippers, sweater or other warm clothing -- even to bed. If financial concerns prevent someone from keeping their home adequately heated, help may be available through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (866) 674-6327 or the Eldercare Locator (800) 677-1116.

Question 3

Are alcohol and coffee fast, easy ways to increase your body temperature in an emergency?

Select: Yes No

Though alcoholic and caffeinated beverages may make a person feel warmer (because these substances increase blood flow to the skin and extremities) they both speed the loss of body heat, though for opposite reasons.

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Alcohol is a depressant so it slows the heart while caffeine is a stimulant that makes the heart beat faster. When trying to warm your body, it is better to drink lots of sweet beverages or broth and eat nutritious meals. If the drinks and food can be warm, that's all the better but their purpose is more to supply badly needed energy than to provide warmth. Also, avoid smoking since nicotine expedites loss of body heat.

Continue this quiz at Guarding against hypothermia, part 2

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