Always cold? Always hot? What is thermoregulation?

Thermoregulation is the biological mechanism responsible for maintaining a constant internal body temperature. The thermoregulatory system includes the hypothalamus in the brain, as well as the sweat glands, skin, and circulatory system. The human body maintains a temperature of around 37°C through various physical processes. These include sweating to lower body temperature, shivering to raise it, and narrowing or loosening of blood vessels to alter blood flow. If a person is unable to regulate their temperature, they are at risk of overheating, leading to hyperthermia. The reverse is also true: if the core temperature falls below a level, it causes hypothermia. Both of these conditions can potentially be life threatening. This article explores thermoregulation and how this essential process works. It also discusses thermoregulation disorders and their possible causes.

What is thermoregulation?

Thermoregulation is how mammals maintain a stable body temperature. Unlike reptiles, whose body temperature varies according to their environment, mammals must maintain a constant body temperature at all times. In humans, the temperature is one or two degrees near 37°C.

When thermoregulation is working as it should, the body is functioning at its optimal level. Too high or too low a temperature can affect the trusted source:

– the heart
– the circulatory system
– the brain
– the gastrointestinal tract
– lungs
– kidneys
– liver

How does thermoregulation work in humans?

The human body uses three mechanismsReliable source of thermoregulation:

– efferent responses
– afferent detection
– central control

Efferent responses are the behaviors that humans can adopt to regulate their own body temperature. Examples of efferent responses include putting on a coat before going out in cold weather and going into the shade in hot weather.

Afferent sensing involves a system of temperature receptors around the body to identify whether the core temperature is too hot or too cold. Receptors transmit information to the hypothalamus, which is part of the brain.

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The hypothalamus acts as the central controller, using information it receives from afferent sensing to produce hormones that alter body temperature. These hormones send signals to various parts of the body so that it can react to heat or cold – such as chills or dilated blood vessels.

Thermoregulation disorders

The healthy temperature range of the human body is very narrow. If the body cannot maintain a temperature within this range, thermoregulation disorders may develop.


Hyperthermia occurs when the body’s heat-regulating mechanisms fail and the body temperature becomes too high. There are several types of hyperthermia, including the following:

– heat cramps, which come in the form of heavy sweating and muscle cramps during physical exercise
– heat exhaustion, which is more serious and causes a range of symptoms
– heat stroke, which is a medical emergency.

The symptoms of heat exhaustion are as follows

– sweat
– pale, clammy or cold skin
– rapid or weak pulse
– tired
– weakness
– dizziness
– nausea or vomiting
– headache
– fainting

Heat stroke causes similar symptoms, but with some important differences, including:

– reddened or warm skin, which may be dry or moist
– a rapid and strong pulse
– a body temperature of 39.4°C


Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce. Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can cause hypothermia. Symptoms include:

– chills
– confusion
– exhaustion or feeling very tired
– trembling hands
– slurred speech
– drowsiness
– memory loss
In young children and babies, hypothermia results in cold skin, which can be bright red in fair-skinned people.

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Several factors can affect thermoregulation, including environmental conditions, diseases, and certain medications.

Extreme climatic conditions

Extreme weather conditions can significantly affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature. Hypothermia occurs when a person is exposed to extremely cold temperatures for an extended period. In this case, the body quickly loses heat and heat production cannot keep up, which leads to a drop in body temperature. Besides freezing temperatures, hypothermia can also occur in cool temperatures if sweat, rain, or immersion in cold water chills a person.

Conversely, hot weather and prolonged exposure to the sun can lead to overheating of the body. Instead of losing more heat than it can produce, the body heats up faster than it can cool down.


When a person suffers from an infection, harmful microorganisms invade the body and multiply. These pathogens can grow at normal body temperatures, but high temperature makes it more difficult for some of them to survive. This is why fever is often part of the immune response to infections. This occurs when the body raises its own temperature in an attempt to kill the organisms causing the infection. Many doctors recommend letting the fever run its course so the body can protect itself adequately.

However, problems can arise if the body temperature gets too high and interferes with necessary functions. If a person has a fever above 40.5°C (40.5°C) and it does not come down with medication, they should urgently seek medical attention. A doctor will treat the fever to try to bring the body temperature down to a safe level.


Infants and the elderly are at higher risk for thermoregulatory disorders. This is because such people have lower muscle mass, diminished shiver reflex, and weaker immunity. Older people tend to have lower body temperatures and may not develop a fever when they contract a viral or bacterial illness. Sometimes they may develop hypothermia instead.

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Other diseases

Other diseases can also affect thermoregulation. These include the following diseases

– Endocrine disorders

The endocrine system includes glands and organs that produce hormones, such as the pancreas, thyroid, pituitary, and adrenal glands. If something interferes with hormone production, it can affect body temperature. For example, an underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism, can cause your body temperature to drop, while an overactive thyroid, called hyperthyroidism, can cause your body temperature to rise.

Central nervous system (CNS) disorders

The CNS includes the brain, spinal cord and nerves. Conditions that affect the CNS can interfere with thermoregulation by impairing afferent sensing and central control. Here are some examples of these conditionsTrusted Source:

– brain damage
– spinal cord injuries
– neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis
– tumors


Some medications can have the side effect of disrupting thermoregulation, causing a temporary increase in body temperature. Some people call this “drug fever”. Here are some examples of drugs that can have this effect:

– antibiotics
– nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
– first-generation anticonvulsants
– antidepressants

In general, thermoregulation quickly returns to normal when a person stops taking the drug. People should always consult a doctor before changing the dosage of their medicine.


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