Hypothermia - Treatment

A person with hypothermia requires immediate medical attention. First aid for such patients is not as obvious as it may seem, however. For example, rubbing the patient's skin or giving him or her a drink of alcohol can be dangerous. Also, the patient should be checked for signs of frostbite (see frostbite entry). Attempting to warm a frostbitten area can be very dangerous.

The first step is to move the patient to a warm, dry location. Gentle handling is necessary to void disturbing the heart. Giving the patient a warm drink can be helpful if he or she can swallow.

Once a patient has reached the hospital, the warming procedure depends on the seriousness of the patient's condition. The stage of hypothermia is defined by the patient's body temperature. The three stages of hypothermia and the temperatures at which they occur are as follows:

  • Mild hypothermia: 90° to 95°F (32° to 35°C)
  • Moderate hypothermia: 86° to 90°F (30° to 32°C)
  • Severe hypothermia: less than 86°F (30°C)

Mild hypothermia is treated with passive rewarming. That is, the patient's body is allowed to come back to its normal temperature on its own. Wet clothing is removed and the patient is covered with blankets and placed in a warm room.

Moderate hypothermia is first treated with active rewarming. That is, the patient is wrapped in an electric heating blanket or placed in a warm bath. As his or her temperature begins to rise, these aids are removed. The body is allowed to return to its normal temperature on its own.

Severe hypothermia usually requires internal rewarming. Some method is needed to start warming the patient's internal organs and tissues. For example, patients may be provided with warm oxygen to breathe. Or they may be given warm fluids to drink. In extreme cases, a procedure known as a cardiopulmonary bypass may be used. In this procedure, a tube is inserted into the patient's blood vessels. Blood is directed out of the body and through an external machine. The external machine warms up the blood. The blood is then returned to the body. This treatment is not available in all hospitals.

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