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What Is Hypothermia?

Dr. Ivan Miller is the Director of the Emergency Department at Westchester Medical Center
Dr. Ivan Miller is the Director of the Emergency Department at Westchester Medical Center Photo Credit: Contributed

Hypothermia can occur when the body’s core temperature drops below 95°. When body temperatures drop below normal (around 98.6°), the body reacts by shivering.

“Shivering is the body’s normal reaction to minor heat loss says Dr. Ivan Miller, Director of the Emergency Department at Westchester Medical Center. “Shivering is lots of little muscle contractions which creates energy and warmth. In addition, 'goose bumps' may form raising body hair on end in an attempt to create a layer of insulation around the body." Usually this returns the body temperature to normal.

“If the loss of body heat continues and body temperatures drop below 95°, shivering will become more violent, muscle coordination becomes clumsy as movement and speech may begin to become affected. Lips, earlobes, fingertips and toes may become white or blue as blood vessels contract to keep warm blood preferentially flowing to vital internal organs and away from cold extremities," adds Dr. Miller.

If left untreated, hypothermia becomes severe and may result in death if body temperature drops below 90°. “Victims will experience lethargy, unconsciousness, seizures and even cardiac arrest.”

Dr. Miller adds, “If you will be outside for any amount of time during this cold snap, wear several layers with a waterproof outer layer and a hat. The head is a great source of heat loss for our body (30-40%). Ears and fingertips as well as noses are extremely susceptible to frost nip and frost bite.”

Avoid consuming alcoholic beverages. Contrary to popular belief alcohol does not warm the body. In fact it has an opposite effect by causing vasodilatation which counteracts some of the body’s defenses against the cold. It also suppresses shivering, and impairs judgment.

If you must be outside, limit your exposure to the cold by limiting your exposure to times when the sun is at its strongest.

Know your limitations. Don’t over exert yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Elderly patients are at particular risk as are patients on certain pain medications.