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What Is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a potentially dangerous drop in body temperature, usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. The risk of cold exposure increases as the winter months arrive. But if you're exposed to cold temperatures on a spring hike or capsized on a summer sail, you can also be at risk of hypothermia. 

Normal body temperature averages 98.6 degrees. With hypothermia, core temperature drops below 95 degrees. In severe hypothermia, core body temperature can drop to 82 degrees or lower.

What Causes Hypothermia?

Possible causes of hypothermia include: 

Cold exposure. When the balance between the body's heat production and heat loss tips toward heat loss for a prolonged period, hypothermia can occur. Accidental hypothermia usually happens after cold temperature exposure without enough warm, dry clothing for protection. Mountain climbers on Mount Everest avoid hypothermia by wearing specialized, high-tech gear designed for that windy, icy environment. 

However, much milder environments can also lead to hypothermia, depending on a person's age, body mass, body fat, overall health, and length of time exposed to cold temperatures. A frail, older adult in a 60-degree house after a power outage can develop mild hypothermia overnight. Infants and babies sleeping in cold bedrooms are also at risk.

Other causes. Certain medical conditions such as diabetes and thyroid conditions, some medications, severe trauma, or using drugs or alcohol all increase the risk of hypothermia.

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