The following article is for informational purposes only. It should not take the place of competent medical advice. In all cases of hypothermia, qualified medical assistance should be sought.

Hypothermia is a condition where body temperature falls below 35 degrees Celsius – normal body temperature is around 37 degrees.

The classic image associated with hypothermia is that of the shipwreck survivor in arctic seas, or the outdoor sportsman caught in a blizzard. But it is a sad fact that people, particularly the elderly and the very young, can suffer hypothermia even in urban environments.

Symptoms of Hypothermia

There are three stages of hypothermia: mild, moderate and severe. Symptoms associated with these stages worsen as a person’s temperature drops.

Mild - Body temp. 35 degrees. Controllable shivering, constricted blood vessels in the extremities, loss of the ability to perform complex tasks with the hands, numb hands, quick, shallow breathing.

Moderate - Body temp. 33-35 degrees. Violent, uncontrollable shivering, slow, laboured movements, loss of coordination, stumbling, mild mental confusion, slurred speech, irrational behaviour.

Severe - Body temp. 32 degrees. Shivering becomes intermittent and eventually stops, cellular processes shut down, pulse rate drops, breathing becomes shallow and erratic, increased mental confusion, difficulty speaking, body often assumes a foetal position. Between 30-32 degrees the person becomes unconscious and if core temperature continues to fall (to 28-29 degrees) the heart will stop.

Take Precautions

Outside the extreme examples mentioned at the beginning of this article, certain precautions can be taken against hypothermia.

  • Avoid cold windy weather (obviously).
  • Wear suitable clothing, gloves and headgear.
  • Avoid getting wet – water is 25 times more effective than air at conducting heat.
  • Stay hydrated – dehydration speeds heat-loss.
  • Don’t let yourself get too tired.
  • Eat carbohydrates – needed as fuel by the body to produce heat.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine – all of them increase heat-loss through their effects on the blood vessels.


Hypothermia is a very treatable condition with high rates of recovery for all but the most extreme cases (where core temperature has fallen below 32 degrees).

Mild Hypothermia

  • Protect from the elements.
  • Change wet clothing for dry.
  • Heat the environment – heater, light a fire etc.
  • Wrap with blankets or sleeping bag.
  • Apply heat packs to armpits, neck and groin (all areas where large blood vessels are close to the surface).
  • Drink hot drinks and eat high-sugar foods.

Moderate Hypothermia

All of the above. However, there are two critically important additions at this stage.

  • The patient should avoid physical activity and movement.
  • Caregivers must exercise extreme caution when handling and moving the patient.

Physical activity and movement can send cold blood from the skin and extremities rushing to the core. If this happens there is a very real danger that the shock of this will stop the heart.

Severe Hypothermia

This is an extremely dangerous condition. Although your first instinct, when faced with an obviously freezing person, may be to try to warm them up – don’t! In cases of severe hypothermia improper warming can cause heart failure and should only be performed in a medical facility by qualified staff. Call an ambulance or rescue team immediately.

The aim of the caregiver, while waiting for the arrival of medical staff, is to maintain the patient’s temperature and to prevent further loss of heat. Do not administer fluids, sugar or make any attempt to raise body temperature.

Prevent further heat loss by covering the patient with blankets and, if possible, by having two people lie on either side of him and provide skin-on-skin torso contact.

Again, do not move the patient. Do not rub their skin or move their joints unless absolutely necessary.


Rescue breathing or chest compressions should only be performed if you cannot detect any breathing or pulse at all. Administering CPR to a hypothermia victim with a pulse may cause the heart to stop.

Don’t Give Up

In a patient suffering severe hypothermia, heart and breathing rates drop and blood thickens. These factors can make it difficult to determine if the patient is dead or alive. Don’t give up on them until they’ve been warmed up and pronounced dead in a hospital. Miraculous recoveries have occurred, even in people who have suffered dangerously low body temperatures.

Learn more about hypothermia here.

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