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Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Oct. 30, 2012 — With power out and temperatures dropping in Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, keeping warm is more than a comfort issue. It’s a matter of life and death.
In its early stages, hypothermia — too-low body temperature — is hard to recognize. That makes it especially deadly, as many people don’t know it’s happening and become unable to take care of themselves.
Many people think it has to be freezing outside before they can get hypothermia. But if a person is wet from rain or sweat, hypothermia can set in at temperatures well above 40 F.
Those most at risk are elderly people, who are less able to compensate for low temperatures, says James F. Peggs, MD, professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan.
“For elderly people, having the furnace go out or falling and spending hours on a cold floor can trigger hypothermia,” Peggs says. “A body temperature of 96, not a whole lot lower than normal, can cause hypothermia symptoms in the elderly.”
Babies, particularly those asleep in cold rooms, also are at risk. So are unattended children. People who have been drinking alcohol also risk hypothermia, as do some people suffering from mental illnesses.
Hypothermia is a serious medical condition. Call 911 if you think that you or another person has become hypothermic.
The symptoms of hypothermia are the same in children and in adults:
- Confusion, memory loss, or slurred speech
- Body temperature below 95 F
- Exhaustion or drowsiness
- Loss of consciousness
- Numb hands or feet
- Shallow breathing
The symptoms of hypothermia in infants include:
- Bright red, cold skin
- Very low energy level
Hypothermia treatment means warming the body slowly. DO NOT begin by warming the hands and feet, as this can bring on shock. Warm the person’s trunk first:
- Bring the person indoors.
- Remove wet clothing and dry the body if it’s wet.
- Warm the chest, neck, head, and groin by wrapping the person in blankets — an electric blanket works best if power is available. You may also warm the person by skin-to-skin contact under loose layers of dry blankets or towels.
- DO NOT put the person in warm water or a warm bath. Warming a person too fast can cause heart trouble.
- You may use hot water bottles or chemical hot packs, but don’t put them directly on the skin. Wrap them in a dry towel before applying.
- Once body temperature becomes normal, keep the person wrapped in a warm blanket. Don’t forget to keep the neck and head wrapped.
- Give warm fluids, but avoid beverages such as tea or coffee that contain caffeine. DO NOT give alcoholic beverages.
- If the person with hypothermia is not breathing normally, start CPR for children or adult CPR.
After the person arrives at the hospital, medical professionals may give IV fluids and oxygen.