Hypothermia Clinical Presentation

Updated: Oct 21, 2021
  • Author: James Li, MD; Chief Editor: Joe Alcock, MD, MS  more...
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Hypothermia is usually readily apparent in the setting of severe environmental exposure. In elderly patients or "indoor" patients, or for a patient—particularly a wet patient, with exposure to less extreme cold, the history may be subtle and less obvious. These patients may have a higher mortality rate secondary to a longer time to diagnosis and increased age and fragility. Mild or moderate hypothermia can present with misleading symptoms, such as confusion, dizziness, chills, or dyspnea.

A patient's companions often note initial symptoms in the field. Symptoms can include mood change, irritability, poor judgment, and lassitude. Companions may note the patient to demonstrate paradoxical undressing (a severely hypothermic person removes clothing in response to prolonged cold stress) or rhythmic or repeated motions such as rocking. Slurred speech and ataxia may mimic a stroke, alcohol intoxication, or high-altitude cerebral edema. Similarly, profound hypothermia may present as coma or cardiac arrest.

In an urban environment, the use of alcohol or illicit drugs, overdose, psychiatric emergency, and major trauma all are associated with an increased risk of hypothermia.


Physical Examination

The key to establishing a diagnosis of hypothermia is rapid determination of true core temperature. In the emergency department, core temperature is best measured using a low-reading temperature probe in the bladder or rectum or an esophageal probe. In the field, core temperature may be more difficult to establish reliably. A special low-reading thermometer can be used orally or rectally, but it may not reflect a true core temperature. Care should be taken not to rely on a temperature from a rectal thermometer lodged in stool because an inaccurately low core temperature can be recorded; the probe's reading will also lag behind the core temperature during rewarming. Additionally, a thermometer may become dislodged; be suspicious if a core temperature reading is identical to the room temperature.

Obtaining a core temperature may help prevent erroneous diagnosis for patients with an altered mental status due to stroke, drug overdose, alcohol intoxication, or mental illness. Standard temperature measuring devices commonly used for triage may lack the capability to report unusually low temperature; obtain a core temperature reading for any patient suspected of being significantly hypothermic.

At a given temperature, specific physical examination findings vary among patients. However, an examination does provide a frame of reference for dividing presenting symptoms into mild, moderate, and severe hypothermic signs. [8]

Mild hypothermia (32-35°C)

Between 34°C and 35°C, most people shiver vigorously, usually in all extremities.

As the temperature drops below 34°C, a patient may develop altered judgment, amnesia, and dysarthria. Respiratory rate may increase.

At approximately 33°C, ataxia and apathy may be seen. Patients generally are stable hemodynamically and able to compensate for the symptoms.

In this temperature range, the following may also be observed: hyperventilation, tachypnea, tachycardia, and cold diuresis as renal concentrating ability is compromised.

Moderate hypothermia (28-32°C)

Oxygen consumption decreases, and the CNS depresses further; hypoventilation, hyporeflexia, decreased renal flow, and paradoxical undressing may be noted.

Most patients with temperatures of 32°C or lower present in stupor.

As the core reaches temperatures of 31°C or below, the body loses its ability to generate heat by shivering.

At 30°C, patients develop a higher risk for arrhythmias. Atrial fibrillation and other atrial and ventricular rhythms become more likely. The pulse continues to slow progressively, and cardiac output is reduced. J wave may be seen on ECG in moderate hypothermia.

Between 28°C and 30°C, pupils may become markedly dilated and minimally responsive to light, a condition that can mimic brain death.

Severe hypothermia (< 28°C)

At 28°C, the body becomes markedly susceptible to ventricular fibrillation and further depression of myocardial contractility.

Below 27°C, 83% of patients are comatose.

Pulmonary edema, oliguria, coma, hypotension, rigidity, apnea, pulselessness, areflexia, unresponsiveness, fixed pupils, and decreased or absent activity on EEG are all seen.



Complications of hypothermia are as follows:

  • Cardiac arrhythmias at temperatures below 30-32°C

  • Infection

  • Pulmonary edema

  • Bleeding diathesis

  • Bladder atony

  • Electrolyte (hyperkalemia, hypoglycemia), hematocrit, coagulation study abnormalities

Also see Complications in Treatment.