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Hypothermia 101

Don't be fooled: Hypothermia can happen in the summer or the winter. Learn how to prevent and treat a dropping core body temp.

Hypothermia is an abnormally low body-core temperature caused by exposure to a cold environment. It can happen in summer in the Smokies just as easily as in winter in the Rockies


Mild Hypothermia
When core body temperature drops below 95°F, mild hypothermia sets in.

  • Person feels cold and shivers at maximum level.
  • Person maintains normal consciousness level, remains alert, and has normal or slightly impaired coordination.
  • When core body temperature drops below 93°F, the person develops slurred speech, memory loss, poor judgment, and carelessness.

Mild Hypothermia Treatment

  1. Move the person from the cold environment to a sheltered environment.
  2. Replace any wet clothing with dry, insulated garments.
  3. Give the person warm food and lots of sugary hot fluids (an average-size adult needs about 60 kilocalories of hot drinks or about 2 quarts of highly sugary liquids such as drink mixes) to elevate core temperature 10°F.
  4. Slow heat loss by wrapping the person in a sleeping bag, plastic bag, or tarp. Huddling with the person in a sleeping bag will help slow heat loss.
  5. Resist the urge to use hot water bottles or heat packs. They can turn off the body’s shivering mechanism, and they add very little heat to the body core. Instead, bring water to a boil and have the person inhale the steam, or build a fire.

Profound Hypothermia
When core body temperature drops below 90°F, profound hypothermia develops.

  • The person becomes weak and lethargic.
  • The person has an altered mental state (is disoriented, confused, combative or irrational, or in a coma).
  • The person is uncoordinated.
  • When core body temperature drops below 88°F, person stops shivering.
  • When core body temperature drops below 86°F, person’s heart pumps less than two thirds the normal amount of blood. Pulse and breathing are half their normal rates.
  • When core body temperature drops below 83°F, the heart is very irritable and unstable, and likely to develop abnormalities. The person is in danger of cardiac arrest. Rough handling of the person increases the potential for cardiac arrest.

Sobriety Test for Hypothermia: An excellent test to determine if someone is developing profound hypothermia is to have the person try to walk a straight line, heel-to-toe, as in a sobriety test. If the person cannot perform this task and is not intoxicated, it indicates the progression from mild to profound hypothermia.

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