1. ECG changes observed in short-term induced and accidental hypothermia are well known. To assess the influence of steady-state spontaneous hypothermia on the ECG, we subjected four patients with acquired poikilothermia (severe thermolability) to 24 h ECG recording, exercise testing and thermal stress.
2. Twenty-four hour Holter monitoring showed a significant reduction in heart rate and a prolongation of the QT interval during steady-state mild hypothermia (rectal temperature 33.9 ± 0.7°C, mean ± sd) compared with during normothermia; no significant changes occurred in the PR interval, QRS complex and QTc interval (QT interval corrected for heart rate).
3. Unlike during normothermia, during steady hypothermia atrioventricular Wenckebach blocks were observed in two patients, whereas another patient showed markedly more atrioventricular Wenckebach blocks during hypothermia.
4. During steady hypothermia the heart rate variability was significantly enhanced in comparison with normothermia.
5. Exercise tolerance was similar during mild hypothermia and normothermia.
6. Heat exposure (ambient temperature 40°C) induced significantly greater changes in rectal temperature, heart rate and PR interval, QRS complex and QT interval in the patients than in the control subjects (n = 8).
7. The present study reveals that even mild steady spontaneous hypothermia can elicit ECG changes, presumably mediated by relatively enhanced cardiac vagal tone. Hence, spontaneous abnormalities in core temperature should be taken into account in interpreting the ECG in clinical practice.