Hypothermia Can Happen to You Indoors — and Other Surprising Facts

Older adults, young children especially susceptible
Hypothermia Can Happen to You Indoors --- and Other Surprising Facts

We’re all susceptible to hypothermia, a dangerous drop in core body temperature usually developing after prolonged exposure to the cold. We typically think of an accident where someone falls through the ice on a pond or slips on ice and lays outside in the cold.

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But it may surprise you to know that your body can lose a dangerous amount of heat even at room temperature under certain conditions, and that age matters — older adults and young children are at greater risk of hypothermia.

“There are no hard-and-fast rules as to the exact temperature at which you can get hypothermia or the amount of time it takes,” says emergency medicine physician Thomas Waters, MD. “Even at room temperature you can become hypothermic, depending on the circumstances.”

Here are three key facts about hypothermia that you may not know:

1. Cold temperatures are only part of the problem

There are many factors that can put you at greater risk for hypothermia. The ones you probably think of first — wind chill, submersion in cold water and working outside in the cold — are all factors that can rob your body of its heat.

But it’s important to consider these other contributing factors that you may not expect:

  • Age (especially advanced age): Children and the elderly are more susceptible. “Both extremes of age are more at risk because they just don’t have the ability to adapt to the environment,” says Dr. Waters.
  • Medical conditions: Dementia, hypothyroidism, low blood sugar and high blood pressure sometimes contribute to hypothermia. “Blood pressure medications can inhibit your body’s ability to respond to cold,” he says.
  • Medication: Certain medications, as well as medical conditions, sometimes increase the risk for older adults.
  • Dehydration: Lower blood volume affects your circulation and your body can lose heat more quickly.
  • Strenuous outdoor activities: Even athletes sometimes become dangerously overtired and also lose heat more quickly if they are damp from sweating.
  • Alcohol use: “Alcohol causes the blood vessels to dilate, so you’ll feel warmer but actually become hypothermic quicker,” Dr. Waters says. “It can also lead to poor decision-making, so it’s best to avoid alcohol when it’s cold.”

2. Hypothermia can occur indoors

You can lose a dangerous amount of body heat inside your home. “It’s not an uncommon scenario for a person to fall and be unable to get up off the floor,” Dr. Waters says. “Lying on a cold basement floor increases the body’s rate of cooling.”

Not having heat in the winter or keeping the heat turned down too low can also lead to hypothermia. 

“If you’re wet, you get cold much quicker and the colder you are, the faster hypothermia can happen,” Dr. Waters says. Hypothermia can occur in as little as 10 or 15 minutes in very cold temperatures.

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3. It’s a medical emergency and sometimes fatal

Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If recognized early and treated appropriately, there are typically no long-term effects. Otherwise, serious consequences are possible.

More than 1,000 people die each year in the United States from hypothermia — and many of those deaths are preventable.

“Hypothermia can affect the brain and nervous system, the cardiovascular system and the liver. If not treated quickly, it can lead to death,” says Dr. Waters. 

Recognize the signs and take action

Hypothermia usually begins with shivering, which is your body’s way of trying to compensate for the cold.

As your body becomes dangerously cold, the shivering stops. “You may then become weak and dizzy, become uncoordinated, start slurring your speech and begin to make poor decisions as your mental capacity slows,” Dr. Waters says.

Call 911 first thing if you suspect that you or someone else has hypothermia.

Here’s what Dr. Waters recommends:

  • Get out of the cold as soon as possible.
  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • Begin rewarming the body by wrapping it in warm blankets.

“When helping another person, be gentle,” he says.

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Awareness and prevention are key

The best way to deal with cold weather and to avoid hypothermia is to prepare. Remember this acronym:

C – Clothing. Wear dry, warm clothing, including a hat.

O – Open. Make sure clothing is open during exercise to avoid excessive sweating.

L – Loose. Dress in loose layers.

D – Dry. Stay as dry as possible.

“If you’re going out in the car, take a survival kit that includes blankets and a heavy coat,” says Dr. Waters. “You never know what can happen out there.”

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