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Cold weather is a serious threat to people sleeping on the street, in cars or in homes without heat. Exposure to cold can even cause death. The cold is particularly dangerous for infants, the elderly, and people with mental illness or substance use problems. This fact sheet provides information on how to recognize, prevent and provide first aid for hypothermia.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia, or very low body temperature, is a life-threatening condition. It occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Certain weather conditions, such as extremely cold temperatures, wind, and dampness, speed up the onset of hypothermia. Hypothermia can happen gradually and without the person realizing how serious it is. Hypothermia is a medical emergency.

What are the symptoms of hypothermia?
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Weakness
  • Sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Lack of coordination

In infants, signs of hypothermia may include:

  • Cold, bright red skin
  • Very low energy

Low body temperature is a medical emergency and could lead to death if not treated right away.

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How can hypothermia be prevented?
Stay in a warm place. If you have no heat, go to a warming center or shelter. If you have to be in a cold place:
  • Wear layers of dry, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Cover your head, hands and feet.
  • Change out of wet clothing immediately.
  • Consume hot food and drinks if available but avoid alcohol. Alcohol actually lowers your body temperature even though you may feel warmer.
  • Sleep with layers of blankets. Get to a warm place immediately at the earliest signs of hypothermia.
  • Check on family, friends, and neighbors. If they are showing signs of hypothermia, help them get to a warm place.
  • Do not heat your home using the stove, portable gas heaters, or barbeque grills. They can create deadly gases and start a fire.
  • Use an electric blanket: Electric Blanket Safety (PDF)

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What should I do if I think someone has hypothermia?
  • Call 911.
  • Get them to a warm place.
  • Remove any damp clothing and cover them with layers of dry clothes, towel, and/or blankets. Warm the center of the body (chest, neck, head, underarms and groin) first using hot packs, bottles filled with hot water, or an electric blanket. Avoid direct skin contact to prevent burns.
  • If they are awake give them warm drinks, but avoid caffeine or alcohol.
  • If they do not appear to be breathing right or they have a weak or absent pulse, CPR should be provided. Continue until help arrives.

For non-emergency services, call 311.

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