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How To Recognize and Treat Hypothermia

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Updated April 23, 2014

Hypothermia ranges from mild chills and shivering to coma and death. Hypothermia is defined as a core body temperature of less than 95 degrees Farenheit. Hypothermia signs and symptoms include:
  • shivering
  • exhaustion
  • confusion
  • slurred speech
  • memory loss
  • fatigue
  • loss of motor control (fumbling hands)
Some cold exposures are worse than others. Wet victims lose body heat much faster than dry victims. Windy conditions cause victims to lose heat very quickly as well.
Difficulty: Easy
Time Required: Less than a minute to recognize, up to several hours to treat.

Here's How:

  1. Stay Safe! If it is cold enough to cause hypothermia for the victim, it's cold enough to cause hypothermia in the rescuers. Follow universal precautions and wear personal protective equipment if you have it.

  2. Make sure the victim has an airway and is breathing. Follow the ABC's of first aid.

    CAUTION: Victims may get worse as they get warmer. As the cold blood in the extremities begins to flow back toward the heart, the victim's body temperature may go lower. Be prepared for a change in the victim's condition.

  3. Stop the exposure. Move the victim to warm, dry shelter.

  4. Call 911 for victims that show signs of severe hypothermia:
    • confusion
    • coma
    • fumbling hands
    • slurred speech
  5. Remove wet clothing - leave dry clothing on victim.

  6. Wrap the victim with blankets. Warming blankets (like electric blankets) work the best.

  7. Chemical heat packs can be used on the victim's groin, neck, and armpits.

  8. Victims that are able to follow commands and sit upright may drink warm, non-alcoholic beverages.

Tips:

  1. As hypothermia progresses, shivering stops in order for the body to conserve energy. A victim of hypothermia that has stopped shivering may be getting worse rather than better.

  2. Unconscious hypothermia victims may have additional medical problems. There are several causes of coma.

  3. Victims of cold exposure may also be suffering from frostbite.

  4. Alcohol may feel like it warms the body, but that's because it flushes the skin with warm blood. Once the blood is at the surface of the skin, it is easily cooled. Alcohol speeds hypothermia. It can also cause dehydration.

  5. As severely hypothermic victims begin to recover, cold blood from the extremities is pulled back to the core of the body. This can lead to a decrease in core body temperature and worsens the hypothermia. Watch hypothermia victims closely. They may suffer sudden cardiac arrest and require CPR. If that happens, follow the ABC's of first aid.

    For more in-depth information about hypothermia, read Hypothermia Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries

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