Hypothermia and hyperthermia medicolegal investigation of morbidity and mortality from exposure to environmental temperature extremes

Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2006 Sep;130(9):1297-304. doi: 10.5858/2006-130-1297-HAHMIO.


Context: The determination of the cause of death from exposure to extreme temperatures is a diagnosis of exclusion. Because both clinical and autopsy findings are nonspecific, a thorough investigation of the background and scene, evaluation of temporally relevant environmental conditions, and assessment of the victim's underlying state of health with appropriate laboratory studies, which frequently include autopsy, are essential to establish the cause of injury and/or death with reasonable medical probability. Individuals may encounter environmental extremes in many settings during any season. Both constitutional and external factors exacerbate the stress brought about by extreme temperature.

Objective: This article reviews guidelines for forensic investigation into environmental temperature extremes that contribute to an important seasonal grouping of morbidity and mortality in the United States.

Data sources: Articles on clinical and pathologic aspects of hyperthermia and hypothermia were collected and reviewed.

Conclusions: Recognition of multiple risk factors predisposing humans to both cold-related and heat-related morbidity and mortality enhances prevention. Awareness of the susceptibility of these exposed at-risk individuals is crucial to investigations by both clinicians and medicolegal death investigators.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Environment*
  • Fever / epidemiology*
  • Fever / mortality
  • Humans
  • Hypothermia / epidemiology*
  • Hypothermia / mortality
  • Morbidity
  • Seasons
  • Survival Analysis
  • United States / epidemiology