Avoiding Frostbite and Hypothermia

Cold weather can be dangerous for anyone who spends time outdoors for either work or pleasure. Be mindful of the risks. Excessive exposure to low temperatures, wind or moisture can cause two dangerous conditions: frostbite and hypothermia.

Before venturing outside in winter, be sure to:

  • Check the temperature and limit your time outdoors if it's very cold, wet or windy.
  • Bundle up in several layers of loose clothing
  • Wear mittens rather than gloves
  • Cover your head and ears with a warm hat
  • Wear socks that will keep your feet warm and dry

Frostbite

Even skin that is protected can be subject to frostbite. It's the most common injury resulting from exposure to severe cold, and it usually occurs on fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. If caught early, it is possible to prevent permanent damage. If not, frostbite can cause tissue death and lead to amputation.

Superficial frostbite affects the skin surface while the underlying tissue remains soft. The skin appears white, waxy or grayish-yellow and is cold and numb.

If the condition progresses to deep frostbite, all layers of the skin are affected and the outcome likely will be more serious. The skin will become completely numb, blisters may form and eventually the skin tissue dies and turns black.

If you suspect frostbite:

  • Move the victim out of the cold and into a warm place
  • Remove wet clothing and constricting items
  • Protect between fingers and toes with dry gauze
  • Seek medical attention as soon as possible
  • Warm the frostbitten area in lukewarm water (99 to 104 degrees) for 20 to 30 minutes only if medical care will be delayed and if there is no danger of the skin refreezing
  • Do not use chemical warmers directly on frostbitten tissue
  • Protect and elevate the frostbitten area

Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when the body's core temperature drops below 95 degrees. Hypothermia is most associated with exposure to extreme cold, but it can also occur at higher temperatures if a person becomes chilled from being soaked with rain or submerged in water.

Severe shivering, one of the first signs of hypothermia, is beneficial in keeping the body warm. But as hypothermia progresses, shivering gives way to drowsiness or exhaustion, confusion, shallow breathing, irregular heartbeat, slurred speech, loss of coordination and, eventually, unconsciousness and death.

Paradoxical undressing is an extremely rare symptom of hypothermia. The victim undresses instead of bundling up. Researchers believe that in the final throes of hypothermia, victims may feel like they are overheating due to a rush of warm blood to the extremities.

If you encounter someone suffering from hypothermia:

  • Check responsiveness and breathing, and call 911; except in mild cases, the victim needs immediate medical care
  • Provide CPR if unresponsive and not breathing normally
  • Quickly move the victim out of the cold
  • Remove wet clothing.
  • Warm the victim with blankets or warm clothing
  • Only if the victim is far from medical care, use active rewarming by putting the victim near a heat source and putting warm (but not hot) water in containers against the skin
  • Do not rub or massage the victim’s skin
  • Be very gentle when handling the victim
  • Give warm (not hot) drinks to an alert victim who can easily swallow, but do not give alcohol or caffeine

These steps are not a substitute for proper medical care. Be sure to seek medical attention for frostbite and hypothermia as soon as possible.

The free NSC Emergency Medical Response app can keep these steps and many more first aid treatments right on your phone. The need to give first aid can be daunting, and this app gives you the information you need to help save someone from injury or death.

If You Go to Extremes

Winter is fun. So go make those snow angels and tackle that double black diamond. Just make sure to limit your exposure and bundle up.

If you're considering taking the Polar Plunge, make sure to consult a doctor first to determine if you have any underlying health problems. The enormous shock of these types of activities puts a strain on the heart, doctors say. Keep in mind:

  • Cold shock will have you gasping for air
  • Blood flow will divert to your organs
  • You may become paralyzed or weak
  • Blood pressure increases due to constricted blood vessels, causing greater risk of stroke