Treating hypothermia 

Hypothermia is treated by preventing further heat being lost and by gently warming the patient.

You should seek immediate medical attention if you suspect someone has hypothermia, as it can be life threatening. Read more about the symptoms of hypothermia.

Treating hypothermia at home

If you're treating someone with mild hypothermia at home, or waiting for medical treatment to arrive, the following advice will help prevent further heat loss.

  • Move the person indoors or somewhere warm as soon as possible.
  • Once the person is in a warm environment, carefully remove any wet clothing and dry the person.
  • Wrap them in blankets, towels, coats (whatever you have available), protecting their head and torso first.
  • Your own body heat can help someone with hypothermia. Gently hugging them can help warm them up.
  • Encourage the person to shiver if they're capable of doing so. 
  • If possible, give the person warm drinks (not alcohol) or high-energy foods, such as chocolate, to help warm them up. However, it's important to only do this if they can swallow normally (ask them to give a cough to see if they can swallow).
  • Once the person’s body temperature has increased, keep them warm and dry.

It's important to handle anyone with hypothermia gently and carefully.

Things to avoid

There are certain things you should not do when helping someone with hypothermia because it may make the condition worse:

  • Do not put the cold person into a hot bath
  • Do not massage their limbs
  • Do not use heating pads and lamps
  • Do not give them alcohol to drink

Trying to warm someone up yourself with hot water, massages, heat pads and heat lamps can cause the blood vessels in the arms and legs to open up (dilate) too quickly. If this happens, it can lead to a fall in blood pressure to the vital organs such as the brain, heart, lungs and kidneys, potentially resulting in cardiac arrest and death.

Severe hypothermia

If someone you know has been exposed to the cold and they're distressed or confused, they have slow, shallow breathing or they're unconscious, they may have severe hypothermia. Their skin may look healthy but feel cold. Babies may also be limp, unusually quiet and refuse to feed.

Cases of severe hypothermia require urgent medical treatment in hospital. You should call 999 to request an ambulance if you suspect someone you know has severe hypothermia.

As the body temperature drops, shivering will stop completely. The heart rate will slow and a person will gradually lose consciousness. They won't appear to have a pulse or be breathing. If you know how to do it, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) should be given while you wait for help to arrive.

Medical treatment

If someone is admitted to hospital with severe hypothermia, advanced medical treatment can be used to warm them up.

This can be done by temporarily withdrawing blood from the body, warming it, and then returning it to the body. These techniques are cardio-pulmonary bypass (sometimes called heart-lung bypass) and extra corporeal membranous oxygenation (ECMO).

However, techniques such as this are usually only available in major hospitals that have specialist emergency services or units that regularly perform heart surgery.

A person with severe hypothermia often stands a better chance of surviving if they're taken directly by ambulance to one of these hospitals, even if it means bypassing a smaller hospital along the way.

Page last reviewed: 28/05/2013

Next review due: 28/05/2015