Hypothermia is a condition in which a person's body temperature drops below a safe level, and the body is unable to return to its normal temperature unassisted. Hypothermia can lead to brain impairment and death if symptoms are not recognized and treated immediately. Common initial symptoms of hypothermia can include cold skin, shivering, balance problems, and lack of judgment. More severe symptoms of hypothermia are a drastically slowed pulse rate, shallow breathing, disorientation, and even a loss of consciousness or death. Medical attention should be sought immediately for persons who exhibit any symptoms of hypothermia.
An individual's normal body temperature is usually in the range of 96-100 degrees Fahrenheit (about 36-38 degrees Celsius). Mild or early state hypothermia can set in when body temperature drops just one or two degrees. The first symptoms of hypothermia include goose bumps, numbing in the fingers, toes, and face, and slight shivering. A person may begin to lose their balance, experience blurred vision, and display poor judgment and reasoning skills.
If body temperature is not immediately restored, people may begin to experience more serious symptoms. An individual with moderate hypothermia may lose the ability to stand up, experience significant numbness in his or her limbs, and feel very confused, weak, and sleepy. He or she may stop responding coherently to questions and make no attempt to articulate his or her words. The individual's lips, ears, and nose often begin turning blue as hypothermia continues to set in. He or she may experience a dangerously low pulse, muscle stiffness, and slow, shallow, inconsistent breathing.
Severe hypothermia can be life-threatening if it is not treated right away. As the body's temperature continues to plummet, shivering may stop and the individual may completely lose consciousness. His or her body may be cold to the touch and assume a pale blue color. Breathing is extremely shallow, and must be carefully monitored to ensure that it does not stop completely. In very severe or prolonged hypothermia, the individual's internal organs, including the heart, stop functioning completely.
As long as the symptoms of hypothermia are recognized in time, first aid and follow-up medical treatment can usually prevent serious consequences. An individual needs to be removed from the cold environment, stripped of wet or cold clothes, and warmed using blankets, hot beverages, and dry compresses. Critical care doctors and nurses employ warmed intravenous fluids and hot, moist oxygen treatments to restore body temperature in persons with severe hypothermia.