Hypothermia, First Aid

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Overview

Hypothermia results when a person's internal body temperature drops below normal due to cold exposure. While hypothermia typically occurs outdoors, it can also occur indoors because there are many things that can make a person lose body heat.

Hypothermia starts with mild symptoms but can progress and potentially become life-threatening. A person experiencing a late stage of severe hypothermia may go into a coma or suffer cardiac arrest.

First Aid Guide
In the case of mild hypothermia, complete the below self-care measures and get medical care as soon as possible. In the case of severe hypothermia, call emergency medical services immediately.

First aid for hypothermia:

  1. Check the person's airway, breathing, and circulation.
  2. Move the person to a warmer area, and replace any wet or constricting clothes with loose, dry clothing.
  3. To rewarm the person, based on the means available, try any combination of the following:
    • Cover the person completely with foil or a space blanket, or use your own body heat to help warm him/her.
    • Use warm compresses on the neck, chest, and groin.
    • Give warm, sweet fluids. (Any fluids given should be nonalcoholic, as alcohol interferes with the blood's circulation.)
Note: When a person has both frostbite and hypothermia, contact emergency medical services, and give first aid for the hypothermia (above) followed by first aid for the frostbite, which can be found in the topic on Frostbite.

Who's at risk?

Hypothermia occurs most often to those exposed to extreme cold, so people who participate in cold-weather outdoor activities or live in or travel to cold climates are at risk.

Infants are most likely to become hypothermic, particularly if they sleep in a cold bedroom. The elderly, people who are ill, and those with poor circulation are at an increased risk of hypothermia. Additionally, certain diseases and medications, alcohol consumption, and smoking increase risk for hypothermia.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs of mild hypothermia include shivering, confusion, lack of coordination, the urge to urinate, and a cold body (even in areas that are usually warm, such as the armpits). In infants, signs of mild hypothermia include cold, red skin, and lethargy.

Signs of severe hypothermia include a person who is very cold but not shivering, very uncoordinated, drowsy, weak, confused, and possibly uncooperative or irrational. Additionally, the person may have slurred speech and vision loss. In the late stages of hypothermia, the person may be unconscious and have stiff muscles.

Assume that anyone who has been pulled out of cold water (eg, someone who fell through ice) has hypothermia.

When to Seek Medical Care

For mild hypothermia, perform the above self-care measures and then obtain medical help. For severe hypothermia, call emergency medical services.

Treatments Your Physician May Prescribe

The physician will initiate basic life support measures, if necessary, including resuscitation and cardiac monitoring. If a person's core temperature is below 30°C (86°F), rewarming may need to be done before therapy for cardiac arrest is effective.

Severe hypothermia may necessitate warm IV fluids; warm, humid oxygen; and/or other warming measures.