Hypothermia - Causes

The human body functions normally over a very narrow range of temperatures. If body temperature goes higher than about 100°F (38°C) or lower than about 97°F (36°C), problems develop. The chemical changes that take place in cells begin to occur either too rapidly or too slowly. At low temperatures, those chemical changes may slow down so much that the body ceases to function entirely. That condition is known as hypothermia.

Hypothermia is divided into two types: primary and secondary. Primary hypothermia occurs when the body's heat-balancing mechanisms are working properly but the body is subjected to extremely cold conditions. For example, a person might fall into an icy lake. The conditions are so cold that hypothermia develops in spite of the otherwise healthy body.

In secondary hypothermia, the body's heat-balancing mechanisms are not working properly. Hypothermia may develop even if a person is exposed to even mildly cold conditions. Some conditions that can cause secondary hypothermia are stroke (see stroke entry), diabetes (see diabetes mellitus entry), malnutrition, bacterial infection, thyroid condition, spinal cord injury (see spinal cord injury entry), and the use of certain medications and other substances. Alcohol is one such substance. It can interfere with portions of the heat-balancing system. A person may not recognize when he or she is becoming dangerously cooled.

Secondary hypothermia is often a threat to the elderly. They are likely to be on medications or suffering from some medical condition that can cause secondary hypothermia. Elderly people sometimes keep their homes cool to save money on heating costs. They may develop hypothermia even if the temperature is no colder than 60°F (15.5°C).

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