Stages of Hypothermia

Stage 1

Body temperature drops by 1-2°C (1.8-3.6°F) below normal temperature (35-37°C or 95-98.6°F). Mild to strong shivering occurs.The victim is unable to perform complex tasks with the hands; the hands become numb. Blood vessels in the outer extremities constrict, lessening heat loss to the outside air. Breathing becomes quick and shallow. Goose bumps form, raising body hair on end in an attempt to create an insulating layer of air around the body (which is of limited use in humans due to lack of sufficient hair, but useful in other species). Victim may feel sick to their stomach, and very tired. Often, a person will experience a warm sensation, as if they have recovered, but they are in fact heading into Stage 2. Another test to see if the person is entering stage 2 is if they are unable to touch their thumb with their little finger; this is the first stage of muscles not working. They might start to have trouble seeing.

Stage 2

Body temperature drops by 2-4°C (3.8-7.6°F) below normal temperature (33-35°C or 91-94.8°F). Shivering becomes more violent. Muscle mis-coordination becomes apparent. Movements are slow and labored, accompanied by a stumbling pace and mild confusion, although the victim may appear alert. Surface blood vessels contract further as the body focuses its remaining resources on keeping the vital organs warm. The victim becomes pale. Lips, ears, fingers and toes may become blue.

Stage 3

Body temperature drops below approximately 32 °C (89.6 °F). Shivering usually stops. Difficulty speaking, sluggish thinking, and amnesia start to appear; inability to use hands and stumbling is also usually present. Cellular metabolic processes shut down. Below 30 °C (86.0 °F), the exposed skin becomes blue and puffy, muscle coordination becomes very poor, walking becomes almost impossible, and the victim exhibits incoherent/irrational behavior including terminal burrowing or even a stupor. Pulse and respiration rates decrease significantly, but fast heart rates (ventricular tachycardia, atrial fibrillation) can occur. Major organs fail. Clinical death occurs. Because of decreased cellular activity in stage 3 hypothermia, the body will actually take longer to undergo brain death.


Appropriate clothing helps to prevent hypothermia. Wearing cotton in chilly weather is a particular hypothermia risk as it retains water, and water quickly conducts heat away from the body. Even in dry weather, cotton clothing can become damp from perspiration, and chilly after the wearer stops exercising. Synthetic and wool fabrics provide far better insulation when wet and are quicker to dry. Some synthetic fabrics are designed to wick perspiration away from the body.

Heat loss on land is very difficult to predict due to multiple variables such as clothing type and quantity, amount of insulating fat on the victim, environmental humidity or personal dampness such as after exertion, the circumstances surrounding the hypothermic episode, and so on. Heat is lost much faster in water, hence the need for wetsuits or drysuits in cold-weather activities such as kayaking. Water temperatures that would be quite reasonable as outdoor air temperatures can lead to hypothermia very quickly. For example, a water temperature of 10°C (50 F) can be expected to lead to death in approximately 1 hour, and water temperatures hovering at freezing can lead to death in as little as 15 minutes. On the other end of the scale, in water even a temperature as high as 26°C (80 F) may eventually (after many hours) lead to mild hypothermia.

Alcohol consumption prior to cold exposure may increase one’s risk of becoming hypothermic. Alcohol acts as a vasodilator, increasing blood flow to the body’s extremities, thereby increasing heat loss. Ironically, this may cause the victim to feel warm while he or she is rapidly losing heat to the surrounding environment.

Courtesy of WikiPedia

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