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Low Body Temperature (Hypothermia)

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KEY POINTS

  • Hypothermia is a dangerously low body temperature. If your child's temperature drops too low and stays low for more than a few hours, his skin, blood vessels, and organs may suffer damage, and there is a risk of death.
  • A child who has severe hypothermia needs to be treated in a hospital as soon as possible. Get emergency help right away or call 911.
  • The best way to prevent hypothermia is to be prepared and dress your child properly for the temperature.

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What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a dangerously low body temperature. The average normal body temperature is around 98.6°F (37°C). If your child’s body temperature drops just a few degrees lower than this, he will begin to shiver and blood vessels in his hands, feet, arms, and legs start to narrow. This helps your child’s body stay warm and helps keep your child’s major organs supplied with blood. If your child’s body temperature drops even more, his body functions start to slow down. Your child may not be able to shiver at this point. If your child’s temperature drops too low and stays low for more than a few hours, his skin, blood vessels, and organs may suffer damage, and there is a risk of death.

What is the cause?

Your child’s temperature can drop gradually as his body is exposed to cold temperatures for a long time. This could happen if:

  • He spends a lot of time in a cold, unheated indoor environment
  • He is outside in cold weather without a coat, hat, gloves, and shoes that protect against the cold, wind, rain, or snow
  • He wears cold, wet clothing for too long

Your child’s temperature can drop very quickly if he falls into freezing or cold water.

Hypothermia is more likely to happen if something such as an injury keeps your child from moving or being alert. Babies and small children are more likely to have hypothermia. The very young use up energy reserves quickly, so it is harder for them to keep a normal body temperature in cool or cold surroundings. Other factors that increase the risk of hypothermia are poor diet, dehydration, alcohol or drug abuse, low body weight, or chronic medical problems that affect your child’s blood vessels or heart, nervous system, or thyroid gland. Homeless people are at high risk of hypothermia, as are those who are unable to keep their home warm due to no insulation, poor heating system, or poverty.

What are the symptoms?

Hypothermia usually comes on slowly. Symptoms may include:

  • Cold skin
  • Shivering and “goose bumps”
  • Fast breathing and heartbeat at first, followed by a slow or irregular heartbeat and slow, shallow breathing
  • Feeling tired or drowsy or trouble thinking clearly
  • Problems with walking and balance
  • Fainting or coma

How is it diagnosed?

The diagnosis is based on where your child has been and your child’s symptoms. The healthcare provider will check for shivering, confusion, or other symptoms of hypothermia. Your child’s body temperature is checked to see if it is less than 95°F (35°C).

How is it treated?

Hypothermia is a medical emergency and needs to be treated right away. Get emergency help right away or call 911.

A child who has severe hypothermia needs to be treated in a hospital as soon as possible. Get emergency help right away or call 911.

If your child appears to have hypothermia, here's what you can do while you wait for medical help:

  • If your child is not breathing or has no pulse, start CPR if you have had CPR training.
  • If your child is breathing:
    • Take off cold, wet clothing.
    • Wrap your child in blankets or other dry coverings (warm the blankets, if possible). If you must stay outdoors, cover his head, but not his face. Keep him from direct contact with the cold ground and shelter him from the wind.
    • If you have no blankets or covers, cover him gently with your body to help warm him.

How can I help prevent hypothermia?

The best way to prevent hypothermia is to be prepared and dress your child properly. Have your child wear several layers of clothes rather than a single, thick layer. The best layers are those that provide good insulation and keep moisture away from the skin. Materials that do this include polypropylene, polyesters, and wool. Wear an outer garment that is waterproof but will also "breathe." Have your child wear a hat and mittens and keep his neck covered to help retain body heat.

  • Be prepared for a sudden change in the weather. Carry proper clothing and emergency supplies in a backpack so you are prepared for bad weather.
  • Don’t begin an outdoor activity too late in the day.
  • Take off any clothing that gets wet and put on warm, dry clothes.
  • Drink plenty of nonalcoholic fluids. People who get hypothermia are often dehydrated.
  • Keep space blankets (sheets of plastic and aluminum that help retain heat) and high-energy food handy in case of an emergency.
  • Keep an emergency kit in your car with blankets, matches, food, and first aid supplies. If you get stranded in the snow, you can run the car for 10 minutes every hour to warm up. Make sure that the exhaust pipe is not covered and you have a window open slightly before you do this.
  • Keep a full tank of gas in your car for winter outings in case of emergencies.

Hypothermia can also happen indoors, especially if you have trouble keeping your home warm:

  • Have your home properly insulated.
  • Keep your living area above 65°F, or 18.3°C. Take your child to safe and warm places, such as shopping malls or community centers, during cold weather if you need to.
  • Make sure that your child wears layers of warm clothing and covers his head and neck, even indoors, if he has trouble keeping warm. Be sure to have and use enough warm blankets.
  • Keep your child dry.
  • Make sure that your child gets plenty of rest, exercises, and eats healthy food. Give your child hot meals and drink warm liquids throughout the day.
  • Ask your healthcare provider if any medicine your child takes might increase his risk of hypothermia.
  • If you cannot pay heating bills to keep your home warm, you can ask for help from agencies that can provide funds to help pay fuel bills, churches, or hospitals.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2016.4 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2016-10-31
Last reviewed: 2016-10-31
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright © 2016 RelayHealth, a division of McKesson Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.
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