Health Break | Published December 16, 2009 | Written by Theo Waksmunski, RN

Mount Nittany Medical Center nurse provides the cold facts on hypothermia

Fact or fiction: It needs to be really cold outside for someone to develop hypothermia. Fiction. Prolonged exposure to cold air or water are common causes of hypothermia. This may include falling and being unable to get up (including inside your home—temperature 50-65 degrees F).

The body needs a normal temperature to function efficiently. Hypothermia is defined as a core body temperature under 95 degrees F. Severe hypothermia is associated with a core temperature less than 90 degrees F. Hypothermia usually develops slowly when more heat escapes from your body than your body can generate.

Signs of hypothermia may include weakness, apathy and being easily fatigued. Impaired reasoning (irrational), coordination and gait (stumbles) may be seen. Speech may be slowed or slurred (mumbles, grumbles). Breathing and heart rate may slow. As the heart becomes cold, it may be prone to be irregular. The body attempts to generate heat by shivering. Shivering usually stops when body temperature drops below 90 degrees F. Untreated hypothermia will lead to heart and lung failure and death.

Older people are more prone to hypothermia because their body's normal temperature-regulating mechanisms become more inefficient. They also have an impaired ability to adapt to changing environmental temperatures. Other people at risk include the very young, people with Alzheimer's, people with other medical conditions such as untreated thyroid problems, heart or circulation problems.

The use of alcohol or marijuana may increase risk of hypothermia (both dilate blood vessels). Malnutrition or immobility may also contribute. Other contributing causes to developing hypothermia include inadequate clothing, including protecting the head from heat loss. Prevent hypothermia by dressing in layers, including protecting the head from heat loss, maintaining good nutrition and staying warm and dry.

Hypothermia conditions can happen in the home. Loss of heat source and immobility can lead to hypothermia. The elderly living alone are especially at risk for falls which can lead to immobility and falls. Consider checking on your elderly neighbors and family to make sure they are ok during this cold winter months.

If you suspect someone may be suffering from hypothermia, please remember to: move the person to a warm area, remove any wet clothing, cover the person with blankets and call 9-1-1.

Theo Waksmunski, RN, is a clinical educator at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

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