Hypothermia: What is it? Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

It occurs when body temperature decreases due to physical exposure to icy environments.

This condition usually appears in the winter season. Still, other climatic seasons are not excluded, nor are sports activities linked to water or frozen areas such as swimming or climbing high mountains.

Causes of hypothermia

Among the causes that generate hypothermia can be mentioned:

  • Places with cold temperatures: the human body is not used or prepared for temperatures below minus 0 degrees Celsius to prevail in areas that have these conditions without the required protection, increasing the chances of developing hypothermia.
  • Physical conditions: age, weight, body mass, and physical health play an important role when the body is subjected to cold temperatures because this can prolong or accelerate the process of hypothermia.
  • Diseases: certain conditions can influence the time of suffering from hypothermia, such as diabetes, and thyroid problems, among others.
  • Medications: some medications affect the body, making them more likely to acquire hypothermia.
  • Other causes: the consumption of drugs or alcoholic beverages increases the chances of suffering hypothermia when the body is under cold or icy temperatures.

The human body emanates heat through the skin and exhalation in breathing. When the body is exposed to frigid temperatures, the body emanates much more warmth to balance body temperature.

If the exposure is in icy water, the loss of body heat is usually 25 times faster than in an external environment where the breeze is the channel that transports the temperature.

The body begins to temper or suffers from spasms or chills because it is the defense system that activates the brain to produce heat, better known as vasoconstriction because the blood vessels come together momentarily.

Among the organs that produce heat are the heart and liver, but when the body’s extremities begin to cool completely, unbalancing the body’s core temperature, they decrease heat production to maintain only the right temperature for the brain.


When the body temperature decreases and the central nervous system is affected, respiration, cerebrovascular activity, and heart rate begin to fail. Then there are signs of fatigue, daze, and confusion.


Symptoms of hypothermia for adults include:

  • Tremors: may stop as hypothermia progresses (the chills are a good sign that a person’s heat regulation systems are still active).
  • Slow and shallow breathing: the body decreases body activity to give that energy to the heart and thus tries to stay warm.
  • Confusion and memory loss: when hypothermia is advanced, the brain loses its faculties, leading to confusion and memory loss.
  • Drowsiness or exhaustion: the body trying to produce heat to maintain a suitable body temperature consumes a lot of energy, which is why the body is quickly exhausted.
  • Speech slow or murmured: this occurs by the same fact of drowsiness or physical and mental exhaustion.
  • Loss of coordination: by vasoconstriction, the body becomes clumsy, and the steps are often wobbly.
  • Slow and weak pulse: when the organism is in severe hypothermia, the heart begins to lower the pulsations, and the breathing becomes weak.

Symptoms of hypothermia for babies include:

  • Red skin is bright to the touch.
  • Deficient energy

Diagnosis of hypothermia

Recognizing the symptoms is the first step in diagnosing hypothermia. A specialized thermometer, available in most emergency rooms in hospitals and clinics, can detect shallow body temperatures and confirm a diagnosis.

Temperatures for hypothermia generally range from:

  • Mild hypothermia: 89-95 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Moderate hypothermia: 82-89 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Severe hypothermia: less than 82 degrees Fahrenheit.


Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition that needs emergency medical attention.

If medical care is not available immediately:

  • Remove wet clothing, hats, gloves, shoes, and socks.
  • Protect against wind, drafts, and additional heat loss with warm and dry clothes and blankets.
  • Move gently to a warm, dry shelter as soon as possible.
  • Keep the body warm with an electric blanket in the torso area and hot packs and a heating pad in the torso, armpits, neck, and groin.
  • Take body temperature with a thermometer to measure progress.
  • Ingest warm liquids but avoid alcohol and caffeine, which accelerate heat loss.

In cases of advanced hypothermia, hospital treatment is required to reheat the core temperature. Treatment with hypothermia may include fluids heated intravenously, heated and humidified oxygen, and peritoneal lavage, among other measures.

Complications during recovery can include pneumonia, cardiac arrhythmias, ventricular fibrillation, and death.