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Frostbite and Hypothermia Differences between Symptoms and Stages

What Is the Difference Between Frostbite and Hypothermia?

Frostbite and hypothermia are the consequences of cold exposure and both can have long lasting effects.

The body tries to maintain a constant temperature where heat production is balanced by heat loss. When the body is exposed to extreme elements, for example, bitter cold temperatures in the winter, it will try to protect the internal organs by diverting blood circulation away from the skin, sacrificing expendable parts like fingers and toes. Shivering generates heat and can compensate well if the cold exposure is short-lived. However, if the body remains in the cold, bad things can happen very quickly.

What Is Hypothermia?

The electrical conducting systems of the brain and heart are very sensitive to decreasing core body temperatures and begin to fail as body temperature decreases. Hypothermia is defined as a body temperature less than 95 F (35 C), and signs and symptoms of mild hypothermia are lethargy and confusion. As the body temperature continues to lower, the person becomes more confused, which results in poor decision-making. Instead of coming out of the cold, apathy sets in and the person may become delirious.

What Are the Symptoms of Hypothermia?

Patient Comments

Symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Initial hunger and nausea will give way to apathy as the core body temperature drops.
  • The next symptoms develop and are confusion, lethargy, slurred speech, loss of consciousness, and coma.
  • Often the affected person will lie down, fall asleep, and die. Some individuals will paradoxically remove their clothes just before this occurs.

The decrease in brain function occurs in direct relationship to the decrease in body temperature (the colder the body, the less the brain function). Brain function stops at a core temperature of 68 F (20 C).

The heart is subject to abnormal electrical rhythms as hypothermia progresses. Ventricular fibrillation, a disorganized rhythm in which the heart is unable to pump, may occur at core temperatures below 82.4 F (28 C). This is one type of cardiac arrest. This is important to recognize since this irritability and risk of sudden cardiac death may occur when the body is rewarmed.

What Is Paradoxical Undressing?

A phenomenon called paradoxical undressing occurs when the person who is cold undresses instead of trying to bundle up. It common for a person who is hypothermic to curl up in a snow bank and die. The heart also does strange things when it gets cold. A normal heart rhythm can become irritable and eventually degenerate into ventricular fibrillation (where the bottom chambers of the heart jiggle like a bowl of Jell-O). This lack of electrical impulse does not allow the heart to beat and pump blood to the body and is one of the causes of sudden cardiac death.

Last Reviewed 1/9/2018

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Patient Comments & Reviews

The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Frostbite and Hypothermia (Differences between Symptoms and Stages):

Hypothermia and Frostbite - Experience

Have you had hypothermia? Please tell us about your experience.

Frostbite and Hypothermia - Symptoms

What symptoms and signs did you experience with hypothermia?

Frostbite and Hypothermia - Signs and Symptoms

What signs and symptoms did you experience with frostbite? Which body parts were affected?

How Do You Get Frostbite?

Frostbite can affect the nose, cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes (most commonly affected). Risks and causes of frostbite and hypothermia include:

  • Spending a lot of time outside, such as the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc. under extremely cold weather conditions.
  • Those under the influence of alcohol.
  • The elderly without adequate heating, food, and shelter; who are exhausted or excessively dehydrated.
  • The mentally ill.

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