Hypothermia is dangerously low body temperature, below 95°F (35°C).
Low body temperature; Cold exposure; Exposure
Other types of cold injuries that affect the limbs are called peripheral cold injuries. Of these, frostbite is the most common freezing injury. Nonfreezing injuries that occur from exposure to cold wet conditions include trench foot and immersion foot conditions. Chilblains (also known as pernio) are small, itchy or painful lumps on the skin that often occur on the fingers, ears, or toes. They are a type of nonfreezing injury that develops in cold, dry conditions.
You are more likely to develop hypothermia if you are:
- Very old or very young
- Chronically ill, especially people who have heart or blood flow problems
- Overly tired
- Taking certain prescription medicines
- Under the influence of alcohol or drugs
Hypothermia occurs when more heat is lost than the body can make. In most cases, it occurs after long periods in the cold.
Common causes include:
- Being outside without enough protective clothing in winter
- Falling into cold water of a lake, river, or other body of water
- Wearing wet clothing in windy or cold weather
- Heavy exertion, not drinking enough fluids, or not eating enough in cold weather
As a person develops hypothermia, they slowly lose the ability to think and move. In fact, they may even be unaware that they need emergency treatment. Someone with hypothermia also is likely to have frostbite.
The symptoms include:
- Pale and cold skin
- Slowed breathing or heart rate
- Shivering that cannot be controlled (although at extremely low body temperatures, shivering may stop)
- Weakness and loss of coordination
Lethargy (weakness and sleepiness), cardiac arrest, shock, and coma can set in without prompt treatment. Hypothermia can be fatal.
Take the following steps if you think someone has hypothermia:
- If the person has any symptoms of hypothermia that are present, especially confusion or problems thinking, call 911 right away.
- If the person is unconscious, check airway, breathing, and circulation. If necessary, begin rescue breathing or CPR. If the victim is breathing fewer than 6 breaths per minute, begin rescue breathing.
- Take the person inside to room temperature and cover with warm blankets. If going indoors is not possible, get the person out of the wind and use a blanket to provide insulation from the cold ground. Cover the person's head and neck to help retain body heat.
- Victims of severe hypothermia should be removed from the cold environment with as little exertion as possible. This helps to avoid warmth from being shunted from the person's core to the muscles. In a very mildly hypothermic person, muscular exercise is thought to be safe, however.
- Once inside, remove any wet or tight clothes and replace them with dry clothing.
- Warm the person. If necessary, use your own body heat to aid the warming. Apply warm compresses to the neck, chest wall, and groin. If the person is alert and can easily swallow, give warm, sweetened, nonalcoholic fluids to aid the warming.
- Stay with the person until medical help arrives.
Follow these precautions:
- DO NOT assume that someone found lying motionless in the cold is already dead.
- DO NOT use direct heat (such as hot water, a heating pad, or a heat lamp) to warm the person.
- DO NOT give the person alcohol.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call 911 anytime you suspect someone has hypothermia. Give first aid while waiting for emergency help.
Before you spend time outside in the cold, DO NOT drink alcohol or smoke. Drink plenty of fluids and get enough food and rest.
Wear proper clothing in cold temperatures to protect your body. These include:
- Mittens (not gloves)
- Wind-proof, water-resistant, many-layered clothing
- Two pairs of socks (avoid cotton)
- Scarf and hat that cover the ears (to avoid major heat loss through the top of your head)
- Extremely cold temperatures, especially with high winds
- Wet clothes
- Poor circulation, which is more likely from age, tight clothing or boots, cramped positions, fatigue, certain medicines, smoking, and alcohol
Prendergast HM, Erickson TB. Procedures pertaining to hypothermia and hyperthermia. In: Roberts JR, Custalow CB, Thomsen TW, eds. Roberts and Hedges' Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine and Acute Care. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 65.
Zafren K, Danzl DF. Frostbite and nonfreezing cold injuries. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 131.
Zafren K, Danzl DF. Accidental hypothermia. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 132.
- Last reviewed on 9/23/2019
- Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is the first of its kind, requiring compliance with 53 standards of quality and accountability, verified by independent audit. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial process. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics (www.hiethics.com) and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 2002 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.