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Unlike warmblooded animals that have a layer of hair or blubber to keep them warm, you need an extra layer of clothing to keep you warm when it's cold outside. Without that extra layer of clothing, more heat escapes from your body than your body can produce. If too much heat escapes, the result is hypothermia. Exposure to cold water and certain medical conditions also can cause hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs when your body's control mechanisms fail to maintain a normal body temperature. Your normal core body temperature is usually right around 36.8 C. An internal body temperature of 36 C or lower signals hypothermia.

  • 34 - 36 C (mild hypothermia)
  • 30 - 33.9 C (moderate hypothermia)
  • < 30 C (severe hypothermia)

Signs and symptoms that may develop include gradual loss of mental and physical abilities. Severe hypothermia can lead to death. Hypothermia isn't a serious risk. Those at greatest risk are older adults, children, people who are mentally ill or have Alzheimer's disease and lose their judgment about when to seek shelter, and people who are intoxicated, homeless or caught in cold weather because their vehicle has broken down.

Wearing protective clothing and taking other precautions can ensure that your body temperature doesn't drop to deadly levels. Paying attention to what may be early signs and symptoms of hypothermia also is important.

When you're outdoors enjoying such activities as camping, hunting, fishing, boating and skiing, be aware of weather conditions and whether you or others with you are wet and cold. When the water evaporates, it further cools your skin, dropping your internal temperature. A wind blowing over the wet parts of your body greatly increases evaporation and cooling. The best approach to being cold and wet is to move indoors and get warm and dry early — before you encounter serious hypothermia.

Signs and symptoms 

A drop in your body's normal core temperature to 36 C or below is the key sign of hypothermia. The condition usually comes on gradually. Often, people aren't aware that they need medical attention. Common signs to look for are shivering, which is your body's attempt to generate heat through muscle activity, and the "umbles" — stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles. These behaviors may be a result of changes in motor coordination and levels of consciousness caused by hypothermia.

Other signs and symptoms may include:

  • Slurred speech

  • Abnormally slow rate of breathing

  • Cold, pale skin

  • Fatigue, lethargy or apathy

The severity of hypothermia can vary, depending on how low your core body temperature goes. Severe hypothermia will eventually lead to cardiac and respiratory failure, then death.


The cause of hypothermia usually is extended exposure to cold temperatures or a cool, damp environment. Other contributing causes include inadequate clothing and neglecting to cover your head, hands and feet. Normally, a disproportionate amount of heat is lost through your head. Hypothermia can happen not just in cold winter weather, when there are low temperatures or low windchill factors, but under more mild conditions as well. A rain shower that soaks you to the skin on a cool day can lead to hypothermia if you don't move inside to warm up and dry off.

An accidental fall into cold water also may be a cause. Hypothermia may develop within a few minutes after you're exposed to cold water or it may take several hours, depending on the water temperature. Water doesn't have to be icy cold to cause hypothermia. Your body loses heat more quickly in water than in air. Any water temperature lower than body temperature will cause your body to lose some heat.

Hypothermia > 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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Last Modified : 03/15/08 01:07 AM