As the temperature goes below freezing in many parts of the country, it is important to know the risk of hypothermia, a dangerous condition caused by exposure to extremely cold climates that may lead to organ failure and even death.

Around 1,300 people in the U.S. die of hypothermia every year. Hypothermia occurs when the human body can no longer produce enough heat for the proper functioning of the systems. The core body temperature falls below 35 degrees Celsius during the state.

It can be triggered by prolonged exposure to cold weather or immersion in cold water, certain medications and underlying pathological conditions.

What Happens During Hypothermia

When the core body temperature drops, it affects the functioning of the heart, nervous system and other organs. If not treated promptly, hypothermia can progress to complete heart failure, failure of the respiratory system and eventually death.

Complications may also include frostbite, which occurs when the body tissues — particularly in the exposed areas like the nose, hands, toes and cheeks — get frozen. If not treated right away, hypothermia can lead to gangrene, causing permanent tissue damage that may require amputation of the affected body part.

Elderly people, young children, unhoused individuals and those taking part in cold-weather sports are particularly at risk of hypothermia.

Signs of Hypothermia

The first sign of hypothermia is shivering, which is the body's natural defense mechanism to bring back the core temperature. Other signs include slurred speech, shallow breathing, weak pulse, poor coordination, confusion, memory loss, bright red skin and loss of consciousness.

Prevention and Treatment

One can prevent hypothermia by minimizing exposure to cold temperatures. The complications can be mitigated by seeking treatment when the symptoms begin.

A person who experiences mild hypothermia can feel better with first aid before they get medical assistance. Removing their cold wet clothes, moving them to a warmer dry shelter and offering extra clothing, warm blankets and warm liquids can help them recover. However, if a person turns unconscious, it is important to seek immediate medical attention.

Advanced hypothermia is treated at the hospital with techniques such as blood rewarming using a hemodialysis machine, providing warmed IV fluids and airway rewarming.