Causes of Low Body Temperature

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When 50 Degrees Is Too Cold: Causes of Low Body Temperature

Second of a five-part series about low body temperature.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

You’d think a cold, snowy mountain would be the setting for most deaths from low body temperature (hypothermia). But that’s not the case. Most people die in urban areas—many inside. In fact, almost every year there are deaths in Florida—sometimes even Hawaii.

There must be something besides cold weather that can cause a low body temperature.

There is.

First, the air temperature doesn’t have to be freezing. It just has to be cold enough to lower your own 98.6 down a few degrees. Usually that takes an air temperature of less than 50 degrees. But not always.

There are other factors that put you at risk even if the temperature is higher. Below are are a few examples.

1.     Being young or old.

The temperature regulators don’t work as well at the age extremes, even as young as age 65. Also children under age 3 have more skin surface versus body mass—more skin to take away the heat.

In addition, the cold has a tendency to slip up on these age groups before anyone notices.

2.    Alcohol and Drugs.

They dull your senses (especially if you pass out, to point out the obvious). Alcohol also dilates up those surface veins I wrote about in the last post, making your skin all warm and flush but at the expense of less heat for your vital organs.

3.    Getting wet.

Water conducts heat 30 times more rapidly than air. That means you get cold a lot quicker and at higher temperatures than when dry. Deaths occur annually in boating accidents and the like. That explains most of the deaths in Florida and Hawaii. Your body temperature can get dangerously low in any water below about 91 degrees F. Of course, the colder the water, the faster it happens.

Get out of those wet clothes. And before going out,dress in layers. That lets the air circulate more, and you can take off a layer before you start sweating if you get too warm.

4.    Chronic diseases.

Hypothyroidism, Parkinson’s, heart disease, and severe infections are examples of many problems that affect your body’s heat regulation. People with these issues can’t fight off the cold as well.

5.   Trauma victims.

If you’re treating a trauma victim, remember to cover the victim with a blanket or whatever’s available. Get the person out of wet clothes also. Trauma can wreak havoc with body-temperature regulators. Also the victim might not notice how cold he or she is getting due to pain or an impaired mental status.

If you’ve had hands-on experience with hypothermia or have any questions, please comment.

The next post will be on symptoms–when to suspect the body temperature is getting dangerously low. In the post after that, I will go into hypothermia treatment.

Five-Part Hypothermia Series:

  1. Low body temperature: How cold is too cold?
  2. (This post) Risk factors for hypothermia (besides cold weather)
  3. Symptoms of hypothermia
  4. Hypothermia treatment, part one: How to treat a conscious person
  5. Hypothermia treatment, part two: How to treat an unconscious person
  • old RT

    Hypothermia can also occur from being emmersed in water to long. All depending on the tempurature of the water which would have an effect on the onset of hypothermia. A funny story maybe. While living in Montana, one summer we went white water rafting over on the Flathead. We were out about 4 hours, never capsised but did get soaked. When we returned and I went to dress back in regular clothes, well the male body’s defense mechanism to protect viatal “parts’ was in effect and I had to “find” something before relieving myself ! Cold is
    Cold !

  • Xalleah Hutat

    I have a naturally low body temperature usually around 97 degrees, and there are times when it can be 65 to 68 degrees in the house and I will feel extremely cold and take my temperature and it is below 95 degrees. I have been tested for thyroid disorder and it was normal no problems there. I am in my 20’s so none of these reasons you have provided make since why I get so cold. I usually have to wear lots of sweaters and stuff just to feel warm even when most people are comfortable in a t-shirt. I am from a temperate climate. I guess my body just isn’t very good at it.

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Xalleah, I’d need a sweater at 65 degrees in the house, also. Stay warm, and thanks for the comment.

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  • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

    You’re welcome.

  • William

    I am aware of the need for heat in the elderly (my grandmother is 101 and as sharp as a tack). Her house is HOT! Love her!

    I know about treating trauma victims and hypothermia, but not much about those that have Parkinson’s, Heart Disease, etc. When Katrina came through, I was at my mom’s home where the community is filled with older people that live around her.

    I found a number quite cold in warm temperatures. Disease and age together may have been the cause. I should have known the questions to ask.

    I was not in touch with the “why’s” and you have helped. I just knew they were people shivering in temperatures that melted me.

    Thanks for a little bit more knowledge!

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