Accidental hypothermia

Pharmacol Ther. 1983;22(3):331-77. doi: 10.1016/0163-7258(83)90008-6.


Knowledge of the effects of hypothermia has increased greatly over the past 25 yr. Thousands of patients have been cooled intentionally in the operating room, and hundreds of thousands of living hearts have been temporarily stopped by cold cardioplegia and restarted without difficulty or apparent ill-effect. Yet in spite of the acquisition of this vast body of clinical experience an aura of mystery stills surrounds the patient who becomes hypothermic accidentally. The best treatment in any particular case is not always clear, and published accounts do not always give the impression that the hypothermic patient is treated with the same rational approach with which other sick and comatose patients are treated. In summarizing, therefore, conclusions that might be reached from reviewing past experience several important points emerge. The severely hypothermic patient should be treated in an intensive care unit where appropriate monitoring of temperature, cardiovascular function and respiratory function are available, and where full respiratory support including assisted ventilation can be given. The final outcome depends upon the etiology. The young healthy victim of exposure has a good chance of surviving. The patient poisoned by alcohol or barbiturates has a good chance of surviving provided the level of intoxication is not itself lethal. The elderly without severe underlying disease have a good chance of surviving. The patient with severe underlying disease of the endocrine, cardiovascular or neurologic system probably has, at best, a 50% chance of surviving and, at worst, a chance of only 10-20%, depending upon the associated disease. There is no statistical evidence that any one method of rewarming is significantly better than any other. But there is anecdotal evidence that in the absence of full monitoring and support systems slow rewarming is safer than over-energetic external rewarming. Internal rewarming, peritoneal dialysis, hemodialysis, inhalation of warmed oxygen and extracorporeal circulation are effective in severe cases and can be used with safety. The causes of, and triggering mechanism for, ventricular fibrillation are still largely unknown but the onset of ventricular fibrillation in a very cold patient may often be an irreversible complication. The place of modern anti-arrhythmic drugs in the prevention and management of this complication has yet to be elucidated. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation is difficult in profoundly hypothermic patients but should be maintained until a body temperature of 30 degrees C has been achieved.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Accidents*
  • Acclimatization
  • Cardiovascular System / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hypothermia* / diagnosis
  • Hypothermia* / etiology
  • Hypothermia* / physiopathology
  • Hypothermia* / therapy
  • Monitoring, Physiologic
  • Physical Examination
  • Respiratory System / physiopathology