Shock Versus Hypothermia

This article helps explain the difference between hypothermia and shock, and describes the proper way to treat hypothermia.

Shock and hypothermia might sound like completely different conditions, but in many ways, they present the exact same symptoms and can lead to the same dire results. (See Performing Mouth-to-Mouth Resuscitation for detailed first aid care for shock.)

Mild hypothermia occurs when the body's temperature drops below 98 degrees but remains above 90 degrees. Symptoms include:

Mumbled speech Chills
Clumsy fine-hand movement Lack of coordination
Skin numbness Weakness
Shivering Mild confusion
Ouch!

Popular first aid treatment for hypothermia used to call for one vital element: an ambulance to get the victim to the hospital quickly. No more. Today, health professionals know that any form of movement can endanger the heart of a person suffering from hypothermia, creating dangerous heartbeat irregularities. Even emergency medical teams know to warm up the victim first. When they succeed in getting the temperature above 90 degrees, they move him or her to a hospital.

Severe hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops below 90 degrees. Shivering might completely stop, but in its stead is paralysis, an irregular heartbeat, an inability to walk or stand, and eventually, unconsciousness that can lead to death.

If you think these symptoms sound like those of shock, you are right. Both can create intellectual, muscle, and heart dysfunction. Both can lead to death. The only difference is that shock occurs from a trauma to the body; it can occur in any climate. Hypothermia is directly related to body temperature and cold.

Treatment for hypothermia includes administering hot liquids, applying warm blankets to cover the entire body, and adding more heat piled up on the blankets. The key is to get the body temperature back up and to get the victim out of the “cold zone.” Avoid the old tale about St. Bernard dogs and alcohol. Liquor can mess up body temperature regulation. You might think you are getting warm, but it's only a feeling, not reality.

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