Hypothermia. That is the medical term for low body temperature. Unfortunately, it leads to cold death if not addressed urgently. The idea of freezing to death is just scary. A 2014 report by CDC shows that the number of people who die due to winter-related cold is twice than of those who die due to summer-related heat.
Hypothermia is a situation in which your body temperatures plummet faster than the rate at which it produces heat. Hypothermia can happen either outdoors or indoors. Surprisingly, the temperatures do not have to be zero like in the winter. The average human body temperature is 37 degrees Celsius. Hypothermia starts when your body temperature falls below 35 degrees Celsius.
Check this out; when your body temperatures begin to dive below the 35 degrees mark, your body system starts to get impaired. For starters, your heart rate slows, and you become numb. You will have symptoms like shivering, slurry speech, loss of consciousness and weak pulse among others. So how do people get into this uncomfortable situation? Pour yourself a cup of warm coffee and read on.
Before we dive into the causes, it is prudent to mention that there are two categories of low body temperatures. It can be mild or severe. Severe low body temperature is between 31 degrees Celsius to 28 degrees Celsius. Mild hypothermia, on the other hand, happens at a range of 35-31 degrees Celsius.
Causes of Low Body Temperature
1) Cold weather
You must agree, cold weather is the main cause of low body temperature. By and large, the external environment affects our internal body temperatures. Hypothermia in cold weather occurs after exposure to the cold without enough warm clothing.
Ideally, external temperatures have to be chilly to cause your body temperature to fall. However, this depends on various factors. Body mass is a critical factor, apart from body fat, general health, and age. These factors affect the rate of heat production by the body to counter the dropping environmental temperatures. In older adults and infants, the pace at which their temperature falls is faster compared to any other adult.
Types of cold weather that can cause low body temperature include:
• Snowy weather
• Freezing rain
• Cold AC temperatures in the house
• Wind (cold breeze)
Yes, you can suffer hypothermia because of wind (as in riding a motorbike at high speed). Heat loss from the body happens majorly by radiation. Blowing gale carries heat from the surface of the skin at a faster rate, replacing it with cold air.
To stay safe in cold weather, you have to keep warm. Wear a warm jacket, and cover the head with a hat. Cover your hands with woolen gloves. Wool and silk are the best garment materials for colder climates. In addition, taking warm, sweet drinks and lots warm soups can help to get your temperature up after exposure to the cold.
2) Cold water
Swimming, surfing, kayaking, and snorkeling- the list is long. Did you know that these activities put you at risk of low body hypothermia? Generally speaking, any water that is cold below 35 degrees Celsius can cause low body temperature.
Quite simply; water is an excellent transfer of heat. You lose body heat much faster when you are in cold water than when you are in cold air. This also happens when you are caught up in the rain, and your clothes become wet. Until you change into warmer clothes, the wet garments will continuously siphon away your body heat putting you at risk of severe hypothermia.
Indeed, you can not suffer hypothermia until you spend more than 10 minutes in cold water. However, before that, there is a severe condition known as Cold Shock.’ We have all been there- you get into a cold shower in the morning, you gasp, for a moment you are breathless, and your blood pressure hikes. This experience lasts for about 30 seconds or a few minutes. Now here is the scary part- cold shock can be deadly. 20 % of all people who die in cold water die because of Cold Shock.
Low body temperatures in water can also cause cold incapacitation. This is a situation when you can no longer move your muscles because they are frozen. How to be safe? Wear a life jacket during your water spots. This will help you stay afloat and insulate you against heat loss. If you notice symptoms of hypothermia while in water, the best thing to do is get out of the water and dry yourself. Get out of wet clothing as soon as possible.
Here is the cold truth about drinking; it warms you up inside, but it also results in too much heat loss from your body, putting you at risk of low body temperature. What happens is that alcohol makes your blood vessels under the skin to dilate, causing much heat loss from your body.
Even though you feel warmer after taking a swig of vodka, the blood flowing close to the surface of your skin gets colder when you are exposed to the cold. Low body temperature due to alcohol happens without warning since you will be feeling warm most of the time.
In summary, below are the reasons why alcohol intoxication causes low body temperature:
• Alcohol inhibits shivering disabling the body’s function of efficient heat creation
• Alcohol causes vasodilation-and thus much heat is lost from the skin surface
• Alcohol inhibits your senses so you won’t feel cold and so continue to stay out in the cold
• You can suffer severe hypothermia if you pas outside due to excessive drinking
To be safe? Ditch the bottle in cold nights, when you are out there boating or in cold weather.
4) Old age
Older people are susceptible to hypothermia in the case of either cold weather, cold water or alcohol intoxication. Just as in drunkenness, old age lessens the body’s auto-response to heat loss prevention.
When the clock is ticking fast on your age, you become susceptible to illness. Some of these, including diabetes, can inhibit a body’s natural response to cold.
Additionally, without the shadow of a doubt, we become less active when we grow older. This means that in old age bodies generate less heat. The rate of metabolism slows down. For this reason, even with a minor drip in external temperature, older people can develop hypothermia fast.
In summary, below are the reasons why older people are more vulnerable to low body temperature:
• Decreased shivering and enlarged blood vessels too close to the skin surface
• Reduced rate of metabolism (primarily due to inactivity and weakening organs)
• Medical conditions –diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, stroke
• Medications for old age illnesses- sedatives, anti-depressants (these interfere with the body’s temperature regulation mechanism)
How can old people stay safe from hypothermia? Ensure that they wear many layers of clothing in the cold weather. They should also wear warm socks and slippers in the house complete with a hat. The inside air conditioning temperature should be kept between 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You should also check with the doctors about the side effects of their medications.
5) Very young age
At a tender age, children have not fully developed mechanisms for preventing heat loss. Infants lose heat much faster than adults do. Then again since they aren’t reasonable enough they might ignore the cold and go ahead to play in freezing or wet weather.
Since infants can hardly speak of their condition when suffering low body temperature, it entirely depends on adults to notice the signs and take cautionary measures.
Ways to ensure children are protected from low body temperature include:
• Removing them from the cold and dressing them in warm clothes
• Whenever they go out to play, ensure they are dressed warmly including a hat and waterproof gloves and boots
• Giving them warm drinks
• Covering you and the child in a warm blanket
• Start CPR and call emergency if their breathing becomes shallow
6) Mental problems
Mental illnesses such as dementia or schizophrenia inhibit judgment and may interfere with the body’s response to cold temperatures. People with mental illness most often dress without a care of the weather condition. This is the part where things start to go wrong. In people with dementia, they may wander and get lost even in snowy weather, exposing themselves to extreme coldness and wetness.
Below are the reasons why the mentally ill are more susceptible to low body temperature:
• Mental retardation- they rarely tell the difference between cold and warm weather
• Seizure disorder
• Nocturnal enuresis
• Medication- drugs for psychological illness inhibit the body’s auto-response to cold temperatures.
These include beta-adrenergic, antipsychotics, and other sedatives
Caregivers should ensure that the mentally ill are dressed warmly and are kept inside the house during cold temperatures. They should also consult doctors about the adverse effects of medication.
7) Medical conditions
Your health status also influences your body temperature. Just as some illnesses like the common cold would cause fever, other diseases cause low body temperature. No matter the weather condition, illnesses such as underactive thyroid, anorexia, diabetes, and trauma cause hypothermia.
In other cases, hormonal changes in women cause temperatures to fall.
This happens during the menstrual flow in women. Any illness that interferes with the thyroid glands under your neck or the adrenaline glands in your neck causes hormonal imbalance. When these glands produce fewer hormones, it often causes the body temperature to fall. Such is what happens in hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid).
Illnesses that affect the nervous systems can also cause low body temperature. Stroke, for instance, will significantly lower your body temperature. It is because the body cannot keep a balance between heat production and heat loss. It is also the same case with Parkinson’s disease. Trauma, on the other hand, affects the hypothalamus, which is a part of the brain tasked with temperature regulation. The result is low body temperature.
Recent studies reveal that fatigue is a significant risk factor for low body temperature. In the survey, participants who worked long hours in cold weather got hypothermia. When you are fatigued in the cold, your body is unable to shiver to produce and save body heat. Fatigue and prolonged exposure to the cold impairs shivering and vasoconstriction, which are the body’s mechanisms for preventing hypothermia.
People that work in the cold are at risk of hypothermia. Usually, they suffer severe stress and even frost bites if they fail to dress appropriately. The only way around this is to dress warmly in waterproof jackets, boots, gloves and a hat. Also curious is the fact that many people suffer low body temperature are malnourished. A proper meal here before stepping out to work in the cold can help. If not, from what fuel would your body produce heat?
Even in the winter, you can quickly become dehydrated. Dehydration happens when you are not taking enough fluids, as you should. It is understandable; the cold makes you less thirsty. However, it is dangerous. Here are quick facts about dehydration and hypothermia.
When you lose water through sweating, urination or even breathing in the cold climates, the temperature of your body drops. You will have a higher risk of hypothermia due to the fewer fluids you take in cold weather. In cases of dehydration, the body cannot function properly. Shivering and vasoconstriction to prevent heat loss becomes inhibited. To stay safe, endeavor to take lots of warm drinks to keep hydrated.
This one is kept under wraps. Homelessness, inadequate clothing, insufficient food, you name it. All these build down to cases of hypothermia deaths during winter. When poor people cannot afford cozy homes and warm clothing their body temperatures fall. Low body temperature has been a significant cause of deaths among the homeless on the streets. Most of these people also hardly get a meal in a day. It sucks.
Far from the streets, not everyone can afford to warm their homes in the winter. Electricity bills have skyrocketed. When this happens, older people and infants are in at a higher risk of succumbing to low body temperature.
Briefly, low body temperature is a biological condition that depends on various external factors. Effects could be mild to severe and even fatal. To stay safe, you need to keep fit, healthy and warm. It sounds easy. But it requires some effort.