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 that of those who die due to summer-related heat.
Hypothermia is a situation in which your body temperature plummets faster than the rate at which it produces heat. It can happen outdoors as well as indoors. Surprisingly, the environmental temperature does not have to be exceptionally low like it is in winters to develop hypothermia. The average human body temperature is 37 degrees Celsius. Hypothermia is when your body temperature starts to fall below 35 degrees Celsius.
Check this out; when your body temperature begins to dive below the 35 degrees Celsius mark, your body systems start to get impaired. For starters, your heart rate slows down, and you become numb. You will have symptoms like shivering, slurred 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 three categories of low body temperature i.e. mild, moderate, and severe. Temperatures can vary but typically;
- Severely low body temperature is when the temperature falls below 28 degrees Celsius (4° Fahrenheit)
- Moderately low when between 28 degrees Celsius to 32.2 degrees Celsius (4° Fahrenheit to 90° Fahrenheit)
- Mildly low when the temperature is between 32.2 degrees Celsius to 35 degrees Celsius (90° Fahrenheit to 95° Fahrenheit)
Causes of Low Body Temperature
1) Cold weather
As obvious, cold weather is the main cause of low body temperature. By and large, the external environment affects our internal body temperature. Hypothermia in cold weather occurs after exposure to the cold without enough warm clothing.
Ideally, external temperatures have to be cold enough 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 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 of warm soups can help get your body 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 a risk of hypothermia? Generally speaking, any water that is cold below 35 degrees Celsius can cause low body temperature.
Water has an excellent ability to strip the body of heat. You lose body heat much faster when you are in the cold water than when you are in the cold air. A moist cold atmosphere is actually more damaging than a dry cold one.
This also happens when you are caught up in the rain, and your clothes become wet. Until you change into warmer clothes, the wet clothes 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 another severe condition known as Cold Shock which may develop.’ 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 sports. 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: even though alcohol warms you up from inside, it actually causes quick and excessive heat loss from the surface, making you vulnerable to hypothermia. What happens is that alcohol causes the blood vessels under your skin to dilate, increasing the heat loss from your body.
You feel warmer after taking a swig of vodka because it diverts the blood towards the skin thus taking it away from the core. Even though you might feel warm externally, your vital organs are not as warm. Hypothermia due to alcohol happens without warning since you are feeling warm for 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 continue to stay out in the cold
- You can suffer death if you pass out due to excessive drinking
To be safe? Ditch the bottle in the cold nights, when you are out there boating.
4) Old age
Older people are more susceptible to hypothermia in case of either cold weather, cold water or alcohol intoxication. There are several reasons that can cause a lower body temperature in older age. For example, as people age, they lose fat present below the skin of extremities and the skin also get drier. Both of these alterations can cause a loss of extra heat from the body.
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, we become less active as 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 dp 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. Newborns and infants lose heat much easier than the adults as their bodies have a greater surface area as compared to their weight. Preterm babies are especially prone to losing higher levels of water and heat from the skin.
The situation worsens because children aren’t sensible enough and 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
- Starting CPR and calling 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. People with dementia may wander off and get lost even in snowy weather, exposing themselves to extreme coldness and wetness.
Below are the reasons why 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 their medications.
7) Medical conditions
The status of your health also influences your body temperature. Just as some illnesses like the common cold 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 temperature to fall.
This usually happens during menstruation in women. Any illness that interferes with the thyroid gland in your neck or the adrenal glands on your kidneys 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 system can also cause low body temperature. Stroke, for instance, significantly lowers body temperature. It is because the body cannot keep a balance between heat production and heat loss. The case is same 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 a decrease in 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 who work in the cold are at a higher risk of developing 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 noteworthy is the fact that many people who suffer low body temperature are usually malnourished. A proper mea before stepping out to work in the cold can help. If not, from which 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 are at 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 this leads to cases of hypothermic deaths during winter. When poor people cannot afford cozy homes and warm clothing, it is evident that their body temperatures fall as they have to cope with brutal cold outside. Low body temperature is a significant cause of deaths among the homeless sleeping on the streets. Most of these people also hardly get a meal in a day.
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 particularly 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 does require some efforts.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Low Body Temperature:
As we have already discussed, low body temperature is generally classified under the categories of mild, moderate and severe; the signs and symptoms respective to each stage are discussed below:
For Mildly Low Body Temperature, Signs and Symptoms Include:
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Increased breathing
- Numbness in the extremities
- Constricted blood vessels
- Impaired judgement
- Apathy and fatigue
- Lack of coordination
For Moderately Low Body Temperature, Signs and Symptoms Include:
- Irregular heart rate
- Irregular breathing
- Shivering may stop
- Decreased level of consciousness
- Dilated pupils
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased gag reflex
For Severely Low Body Temperature, Signs and Symptoms Include:
- Labored breathing
- Muscles become rigid
- Heart failure
- Decreased urine output
- Fluid accumulation in the lungs
- Non-reactive pupils
- Cardiac arrest
Infants with low body temperature may show:
- Very low energy
- A weak cry
- Poor feeding
- Bright red screen
- Cold skin
Most of the times, low body temperature starts gradually and worsens progressively if left untreated. Therefore, it should not be taken lightly.
Additionally, general signs and symptoms of low body temperature may include:
Dizziness, hunger, nausea, irritability, tiredness, difficulty in talking, slurred speech, significant confusion, drowsiness, weak pulse, apathy, etc.
Myth Regarding Low Body Temperature:
One myth regarding low body temperature is that we lose heat through our head more than any other part of the body. However, this is not true. Heat can be lost through any area of the skin that is in contact with the environment. The head of an adult is around 10 percent of the total body surface area. Most of the times, rest of the body is covered, with the possible exemption of the hands (which together just make up for around 4 percent of our total body surface area), so we feel cold as our head is cold in comparison with rest of the body.
If an individual has to expose some other part of his body, for instance, his abdomen, which also makes up around 10 percent of the weight of an average adult – then he would lose as much heat through it as his uncovered head.
First Aid for Low Body Temperature:
If you find someone around you who has a lower than normal body temperature, you need to act quickly and wisely as any delay may bring the life of that person in significant danger. You can follow the below mentioned steps:
- First of all, you need to prevent any further heat loss. This can be done by preventing the 4 mechanisms by which heat loss can occur, including:
1- Conduction: If possible, remove the person from a cold surface and place him onto a warm one or at least on a dry surface to hinder any further loss of heat.
2- Convection: Keep the person away from a wet or windy environment. Covering him with a blanket can be good but the goal should be to bring him to a shelter.
3- Radiation: Cover the person as thorough as possible to avoid heat loss via radiation.
4- Evaporation: Sweaty and wet people will suffer more heat loss through evaporation. As soon as practicable, remove wet clothing from the person and when possible, dry the whole body.
- Move the person away from the cold; if this is not possible, insulate his body to keep it from touching any cold surface. If that person has moderately or severely low body temperature, move him as gently as possible. Approximately below 30° centigrade, the heart is quite vulnerable and there are cases reported that showed even simple movements like rolling over the person may prompt a cardiac arrest.
- Try to warm the person but do not use hot water for immersion. Use any available heat source like heaters, hot water bottles, an electric blanket, heat packs to begin warming the person slowly. The source of heat should not be too hot and should not be placed too close to the person. A gradual warming is optimal and whatever heat source is being used, it just needs to be warmer than the person to effectively provide heat. If you are using multiple small sources of heat, such as hot packs or water bottles, it is preferred to place and pack them around torso, groin and into armpits to focus warmth on the central areas of the body. If no such heat source is available, you can share your own body heat with the person by making skin to skin contact with him. Lie next to him with clothes removed.
- Do not give him alcohol as it decreases the body’s ability to conserve heat. If the person is oriented and able to swallow, offer him warm water to drink or non-alcoholic beverages. You can also give him energy foods containing sugars, for example, a chocolate bar. Avoid giving them anything orally, even liquids if vomiting or unconscious.
- Monitor breathing continuously and if he stops breathing, call for help and begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if you are trained. If untrained, call the emergency helpline and the operators can guide you through the steps. Continue it until the person starts breathing spontaneously or professional help arrives in the form of a medical team or ambulance service. Do not hurry in assuming the person dead in cases of low body temperature as CPR can be lifesaving even in cases of severely low body temperature. The person may look dead apparently, he may not be breathing, may be cold to touch, have no pulse, have non-reactive pupils and become rigid – but he still might be alive.
Preventing Low Body Temperature:
The best defense against low body temperature is perhaps, prevention. Simple ways that can prevent it include:
- Avoiding prolonged stay outdoors in cold weather
- Stay updated to the weather status and act and dress accordingly
- Wear more layers of clothing than usual to trap heat inside the body. Natural fibers like wool are very effective at preserving heat
- Use a weatherproof outermost layer to keep yourself dry.
- Use insulated boots and use scarves, gloves, and socks
- Wear a warm headgear
- Eat nutritional food regularly and consume plenty of warm fluids
- Take rest often to reduce the chances of physical tiredness
- If your clothing is wet, change it straight away
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes
- Keep a first aid kit always with you with all the basic necessities