Cold weather can be great fun for winter sports enthusiasts. However, exposure to extremely cold temperatures, or immersion in cold water, can be perilous—even life threatening.

The body generates, retains, and discharges heat, depending on your activity and the environment. For example, sweating cools the body when it's hot or when you are exercising, and shivering helps keep you warm.

Constant shivering is one symptom of hypothermia, which occurs when the body loses heat faster than it produces it, causing body temperature to lower. Body temperature that dips just a few degrees—from a normal temp of 98.6 to 95—can have disastrous results by impacting bodily functions. The heart slows and decision-making becomes impaired. Children, the elderly, individuals with mental problems, or those who abuse alcohol and drugs are particularly at risk for hypothermia.

Tissue in the hands and feet can freeze causing frostbite, which can further lead to gangrene if the tissue decays and dies. Exposure to cold can damage nerves and small blood vessels causing chilblains (painful inflammation of small blood vessels in your skin) and prolonged immersion in cold water may result in trench foot. Hypothermia can even lead to heart failure and death.

The amount of time it takes for hypothermia to set in depends on a number of factors including: age (the elderly and infants are at increased risk), body mass, body fat, overall health and length of exposure time. Hypothermia can occur within minutes of being submerged in cold water, however.

Know the Symptoms of Hypothermia

Be alert for what Princeton University describes as the "umbles"—stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, or grumbles. Individuals suffering from hypothermia have a weak pulse; slow, shallow breathing; and progressively lose consciousness. This condition can cause confusion, poor decision-making, and difficulty thinking. Someone suffering from hypothermia isn't necessarily aware of his condition because the symptoms begin gradually and confused thinking prevents self-awareness.

Treatment Tips

To treat someone with mild hypothermia, focus on interventions that prevent further heat loss. If you see these symptoms, call 911 immediately then move the person out of the cold or off the ground. Remove wet socks and other clothing, cover him with a blanket, and offer warm beverages. Never use direct heat to warm the person or offer him alcohol. Apply warm compresses, but only to the neck, chest wall, or groin.

Prevention Measures

According to the Mayo Clinic, think C.O.L.D.—an acronym that can help you remember hypothermia prevention.

Cover. Before going outside be sure to insulate critical heat loss regions, including head and
neck, sides of chest, armpits, and groin. Use a scarf or hat to cover ears, wear mittens rather than gloves, and don two pairs of socks. Add an extra layer for children and infants.

Overexertion. Avoid sweating; it's your body's way of losing heat. Wear wicking fabrics to pull sweat away from your body.

Layers. Wear wind-proof, water-resistant layers, of fleece or wool. It's best to avoid cotton which stays wet longer.

Dry. Stay dry and remove wet clothing as quickly as possible.

One last tip: Always keep emergency supplies in the car if traveling in cold temperatures.

Liesa Harte, MD, reviewed this article.


Mayo Clinic. "Hypothermia." Web. 8 June 2011.

Curtis, Rick. "Outdoor Action Guide to Hypothermia And Cold Weather Injuries." Princeton University. Web.

Heller, Jacob L., MD. "Hypothermia." U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 14 January 2010.

University of Minnesota. "Hypothermia Prevention: Survival in Cold Water." Web.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Winter Weather: Hypothermia." Web. 3 December 2012.