Hypothermia (Frost) – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Hypothermia (frostbite)

One speaks of hypothermia when the normal body temperature of approx. 36-37 degrees Celsius falls below for a longer period of time (from 30 minutes). This can be the case, for example, after a long bath or swim in the sea. Typical signs are then blue lips and tremors . One speaks of frostbite when the body temperature in certain body regions (e.g. fingers or toes) has fallen below the freezing point. The cells then die off as a result. Typical signs are mostly bluish to black fingers or toes.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia or hypothermia must be distinguished from frostbite . In the case of hypothermia, the physical core temperature is reduced, in the case of frostbite, damage to the body tissue occurs as a result of local exposure to cold. Hypothermia is when the body temperature drops below 37 degrees Celsius.

A distinction is made between two forms of hypothermia: Accidental hypothermia is very rapid hypothermia, for example when you fall into ice water. In such a case, a person can survive a maximum of 60 minutes at a water temperature of 5 degrees Celsius. In subacute accidental hypothermia, body temperature drops only gradually over the course of hours, for example when buried by a snow avalanche. Sufferers of this form of hypothermia become tired, fall asleep, and become unconscious . If core body temperature drops further, death occurs.


Hypothermia and the frostbite that often accompanies it primarily result from a particularly low ambient temperature, the effect of which can be intensified by wind and humidity . Inappropriate or damp clothing and insufficient exercise can promote hypothermia, as can staying in cold water for too long, an untrained circulatory system, a lack of body fat tissue and a poor general physical condition.With hypothermia, the human body not only produces more heat, but also suppresses its release. Because the body’s extremities take up a large part of the body’s surface, they have a special regulating function in the event of hypothermia: the blood vessels there contract due to the cold; the supply of blood is thus throttled in order to primarily supply the torso area with the internal organs and to protect it from the consequences of hypothermia. In the event of hypothermia, this circulatory centering is an effective means of self-protection of the organism with the negative side effect of an increased susceptibility of the extremities to frostbite.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

The symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite vary depending on the severity of the impairment from exposure to cold. Symptoms may be general or specific. A typical symptom is a reduced body temperature.

While the symptoms of frostbite affect a specific spot or part of the body, the signs of hypothermia present themselves more as a response from the body as a whole. Taking into account body temperature and other changes, the severity of hypothermia is divided into three phases. In the case of slight hypothermia, the person affected shows trembling and shivering in the active phase (defense stage) .

In addition, the skin may appear pale . At a body temperature of 34 to 36 degrees Celsius, breathing and blood pressure can increase. In the exhaustion phase due to moderate hypothermia, blood pressure and pulse decrease at a body temperature between 30 and 34 degrees Celsius.

Muscle rigidity , blue-gray skin, and drowsiness or confusion may also occur. Breathing becomes shallow and irregular. In the third phase, the paralysis stage, the body temperature drops below 30 degrees Celsius. This can lead to unconsciousness or respiratory arrest as well as cardiovascular arrest. The severity of frostbite is assigned to three different grades.

Signs of first-degree frostbite include cooling, pale skin, and pain in the slightly swollen areas. In second-degree frostbite, the reheated tissue shows redness, swelling , and blistering. If it turns out after a while that the affected tissue has already died, then you have third-degree frostbite.

Course of the disease

In the case of hypothermia and associated frostbite , the course depends on the severity of the exposure to cold and the treatment. The prognosis is good if hypothermia is treated early and properly.

If the temperature of the body is raised in good time, hypothermia usually has no consequences. Unfortunately, hypothermia is often overlooked, especially when – for example in an accident – other complications are in the foreground. Delayed treatment of hypothermia can cause serious organ damage, which in extreme cases can result in death.


Hypothermia or frostbite should not be underestimated. Complications can occur with severe hypothermia, also known as hypothermia. Light hypothermia, on the other hand, is easy to treat. The same can be said for light frostbite.

Severe hypothermia or severe frostbite can have serious consequences. The extremities are particularly at risk. Severe hypothermia can lead to cardiac arrhythmias due to delayed treatment. Additional injuries accompanying hypothermia can, in the worst case, result in death. This is especially the case if hypothermia is not noticed in time given the severity of the injuries.

Accident victims who have an accident in the cold months of the year must therefore be kept warm. This is hardly possible with trapped patients. There is a risk of cardiovascular failure and death. For cold-related damage, complications can vary depending on the degree of cold damage.

With blood-filled blisters and second-degree frostbite, there is an increased risk of infection if the blisters open. Third-degree frostbite often requires amputation of the affected limb. These often die off. If the frozen part of the body is not amputated in time, there is a risk of fatal sepsis.

Classic complications of hypothermia or frostbite are blackish skin discolouration, edema, chilblains, wound infections, thrombosis due to thickened blood, hyperkeratosis and parakeratosis, and tissue atrophy. Additional complications lie in improper or non-existent first aid measures.

When should you go to the doctor?

If the person concerned has been in a cool environment for a long time without adequate thermal protection, warm baths and a change of clothing are often sufficient. If he suffers from chills, is cold or complains of a general malaise, this should be monitored further. If health well-being improves as a result of self-help measures, no doctor is needed. In these cases, sufficient heat can lead to complete freedom from symptoms within a few minutes or a few hours.

Medical support and health care is necessary if the irregularities last longer or increase in intensity. If there are functional disorders, if the body temperature is very low or if there are changes in the complexion, a medical examination should be carried out. Stiffening of the joints, an inability to move or restricted mobility must be presented to a doctor. A particularly pale complexion, irregular reactions and a general feeling of illness are indications of a health problem.

A trembling of the limbs or the whole body, sensory disturbances and a loss of internal strength are other signs that should be examined and treated. Disorders of general speech recognition, pain and neurological deficits must be presented to a doctor as soon as possible. As permanent damage can occur in severe cases, an emergency service should be alerted in acute cases.

Treatment & Therapy

Timely and appropriate therapy favors the course of hypothermia greatly. Hypothermia therefore requires quick action and consistent measures.

In case of hypothermia, the body should be warmed up slowly in a warm room. A warming bath to prevent hypothermia should begin lukewarm and gradually be warmed up to a maximum of 38 degrees by slowly running in hot water. In the case of severe frostbite, the person concerned should not move independently but be transported; if blisters form, clinical treatment is essential. Existing blisters should never be opened, but covered with sterile material.

Affected extremities should be elevated but not moved excessively; excessive pressure should be avoided. If possible, those affected should apply the cold body parts to their own body, e.g. in the armpit, or have someone else warm it against their body. In case of hypothermia and frostbite, no ointments should be used and no medication should be administered except, if necessary, acetylsalicylic acid (e.g. ” Aspirin “) .


Slight hypothermia can occur even after a short stay outdoors with unsuitable clothing. As a rule, however, it is sufficient to remain in a sufficiently warm room afterwards. After a short time, the body temperature regulates itself back to normal. In the case of moderate hypothermia, the person concerned should be taken to a warm room and provided with a warm blanket.

Hot drinks and a hot water bottle also help bring body temperature back into normal range. If even slight frostbite occurs, alcohol should under no circumstances be administered. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels, which causes the body to give off more heat and thus promotes hypothermia.

If a freezing person is found outdoors, it is important to keep them awake. The emergency doctor and ambulance must be notified. Keep the victim as warm as possible until emergency services arrive. This is done by wrapping it in a blanket or jacket.

People who fall through frozen waters in winter are in acute danger. Rapid recovery is particularly important here. However, the rescuer should be careful not to put themselves in danger. Until the arrival of the emergency doctor, the priority here is to keep the rescued person awake and as warm as possible.

You can do that yourself

In the case of mild hypothermia, which can set in after a short stay outdoors in unsuitable clothing, it is usually sufficient to simply go back to a room with a sufficiently warm temperature. The body temperature then regulates itself. Sensitive people can prevent their hands and feet from cooling down in winter by using chemical heat pads.

In moderate cases, the person should be taken to a warm room and wrapped in a blanket. Instilling hot drinks and a hot -water bottle also help to quickly raise the body temperature back to a normal level.

Under no circumstances should alcohol be served at the first signs of frostbite as long as the person concerned is still outdoors. Alcohol widens the blood vessels, causing the remaining body heat to be released even faster. People who are found freezing outside must be woken up and kept awake until the ambulance or ambulance arrives. Wrapping up in a warm blanket or jacket is also urgently required here.

People who fall through the ice in winter are in acute danger and must be rescued immediately. However, the rescuer must be careful not to put himself in danger. Again, once the person has been pulled from the water, they should be kept awake and as warm as possible until paramedics arrive .

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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.