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The Surprisingly Common Misconceptions About Hypothermia

It isn’t unusual for people to equate freezing to death and dying of hypothermia. As far as it goes, this is correct. Freezing to death is dying of hypothermia. However, this idea often leads to a couple of surprisingly common misconceptions.

The first and most obvious misconception is that people who suffer from hypothermia die. Granted, some do, but the majority do not. Some of the survivors also suffer frostbite, but again, the majority don’t. Clearly, a lot of people don’t actually know what hypothermia is.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines hypothermia as simply:

a dangerous condition in which a person’s body temperature is unusually low

As general as this definition is, it is also accurate. Notice that the definition doesn’t say that it must be the person’s entire body and it doesn’t define what ‘unusually low’ is. This is valid because, among other things, different people can have a different ‘normal’ body temperature.

Frostbite is actually a condition brought on by hypothermia because the body has shut off blood circulation to the area of the frostbite, usually the extremities like toes and fingers, in order to maintain reasonably high core temperature. The ‘core’ is where the vital organs are; the head, the chest and abdominal region of the body. This is an automatic response.

However, if a person’s body temperature drops by only a few degrees, it will be ‘unusually low’ without normally triggering a shutdown of the extremities, in many situations, so most people who are hypothermic don’t experience frostbite.

The second surprisingly common misconception about hypothermia is that cold temperatures are needed before hypothermia can happen. This is totally false. 

There is no doubt at all that a person is more likely to suffer from hypothermia when the air temperature is 50 below zero than they are if the temperature is slightly below 0, however, all this fact means is that it takes less time for a person to become hypothermic at lower temperatures.

Exterior temperatures actually don’t need to be low in order to suffer from hypothermia. They simply need to be below normal body temperature. A person can actually suffer from hypothermia when the temperature outside of their body is 80 F / 26.6 C if that exterior temperature is maintained long enough to drop their body temperature.

In fact, it isn’t uncommon for this to happen at temperatures that aren’t much below 80 F.  It happens to distance swimmers who swim in the ocean, for example. Remember that an unusually low body temperature is arbitrary and subjective, so if the body temperature drops only a few degrees, by definition, it could be called hypothermia. Hypothermia can definitely occur if the exterior temperature is closer to, but still above freezing. 

Not knowing this could potentially mean that a person could die of hypothermia without having any idea that it was even possible for them to become hypothermic, which would mean that they wouldn’t be aware of the signs of hypothermia. 

In the northern part of the US, hypothermia warnings are usually posted whenever the windchill is much below zero, Fahrenheit. This can be a little deceiving because people can also suffer hypothermia at temperatures well above those that trigger the weather alerts for it. If people are aware of this, it becomes less of an issue because they can usually take appropriate action.

Don’t be fooled by the common misconceptions about hypothermia. Believe it or not, humans are designed to cope with temperatures above body temperature far better than they are with temperatures that are below it. Correct information like this has the potential of saving lives.

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Written by Rex Trulove

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10 Comments

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  1. Thanks for that explanation. A very smart boy. Its best not to get anxious but to work out what to do. My Dad got bushed once lost in a the New Zealand busy, he went to the top of the hill to find a river, then he followed the river until he got to a town.
    In some parts of New Zealand bush it is very easy to get lost, as you can only see 5 feet a head of you.

  2. Yes, some people die of hypothermia when they become lost in the New Zealand bush and the temperature is not below freezing. There is a lot of dampness in the air.
    Most people don’t know they can also get hypothermia in New Zealand bush. It pays to check weather conditions and wear appropriate clothing plus tell someone where they are and carry a locator beacon.

    • Hypothermia can strike under a wide variety of situations, especially if people aren’t aware that it can. It rather reminds me of an event that happened a number of years ago at Crater Lake National Park. An 11-year-old boy wandered away from the car and promptly got lost.

      He was wearing only light summer clothing and had nothing to eat or drink. He was also in the mountains, in a place that obviously got cold at night because there was still snow on the ground in spots.

      Fearing the worst, a massive search and rescue effort was immediately mounted and it ran round the clock for four days, with temperatures at night dropping well below freezing. Then they found the boy. He was about a mile or two from where he’d been last seen and was slightly hypothermic, hungry, thirsty, and tired, but otherwise safe and sound.

      Once he realized he was lost, he did the smart thing; he stopped walking. He stayed warm by fashioning bark and lichens/moss into a bed, in a hollow in the ground. He used snow for water and ate what he saw animals eating. It sustained him. More than anything, he kept his wits about him. He had a smaller body mass, so the effects of hypothermia would have been larger for him than for an adult, too.

      When asked who had taught him how to survive out in the woods in those conditions, he said nobody had. He was from the city and knew very little about the forests and mountains. As he put it, “I just did was seemed like a good idea at the time, and I had plenty of time to think about it.” I admired his accomplishment. Many adults would have died under the same circumstances, nearly all of them perishing after panicking.

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