Tips to Prevent Frostbite and Hypothermia
It may look beautiful and sunny outside today, but it’s bitterly cold, with temperatures hovering in the single digits and a severe wind chill. For many people, that’s the type of extreme cold that we’re just not used to experiencing.
Two common reactions to extreme cold are hypothermia and frostbite. Don’t get caught out in the cold – here are some tips from the Center for Disease Control on preventing these common reactions to extreme cold.
When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Low body temperature may make you unable to think clearly or move well. You may not know you have hypothermia. If your temperature is below 95°, the situation is an emergency—get medical attention immediately.
Victims of hypothermia are often (1) elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating; (2) babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; (3) people who remain outdoors for long periods—the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.; and (4) people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.
Warnings signs of hypothermia:
shivering, exhaustion/confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, drowsiness
bright red, cold skin, very low energy
What to Do
If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95°, the situation is an emergency—get medical attention immediately.
If medical care is not available, begin warming the person, as follows:
Get the victim into a warm room or shelter. If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it. Warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head, and groin—using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets. Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person. After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck. Get medical attention as soon as possible.
Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures. Seek medical care if you think you have frostbite.
At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin—frostbite may be beginning. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:
a white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy numbness
A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.
What to Do
If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure, first determine whether the victim also shows signs of hypothermia, as described previously. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance.
If (1) there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and (2) immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:
Get into a warm room as soon as possible. Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes—this increases the damage. Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body). Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers. Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage. Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
Finally, the CDC advises to avoid getting into situations where hypothermia and frostbite can occur, noting that taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with the health risks associated with extreme cold-weather conditions.
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