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Frostbite and Hypothermia

Prevention and Treatment for Frostbite and Hypothermia


Updated September 04, 2013

The most common cold weather related injury and illness are hypothermia and frostbite.

What Is Hypothermia

In cold temperatures you begin to lose heat faster than you can produce it. Prolonged exposure to cold may result in hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Body temperatures that drop too low affect the brain an make it difficult to think clearly or move quickly. Hypothermia is dangerous because you may not know it's occuring until it's too late.

Hypothermia is more likely at very cold temperatures, but can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

Victims of hypothermia are most often elderly or babies and those outside for long periods of time.

Signs of Hypothermia

  • shivering / exhaustion
  • confusion / fumbling hands
  • memory loss / slurred speech
  • drowsiness

Treatment of Hypothermia
First take a temperature: If below 95° get medical attention immediately and begin warming the person by:

  • Get into a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove wet clothing
  • Warm the core of the body first with an electric blanket, or skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets.
  • Warm beverages - not alcohol - and not if unconscious.
  • 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.
  • A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case get emergency assistance immediately. Start CPR until the victim responds or medical aid becomes available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.

What Is Frostbite?

Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas (nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes). Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation.

Signs of Frostbite

The first signs are redness or pain in any skin area. Other signs include:
  • a white or grayish-yellow skin area
  • skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
  • numbness
  • People are often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.

Treatment of Frostbite

If there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and immediate medical care is not available:

  • Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Avoid walking on frostbitten feet or toes (this increases the damage).
  • Immerse the affected area in warm (not hot) water.
  • Warm the affected area using body heat.
  • Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it; 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.

Hypothermia and frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider.

Source: Centers for Disease Control, 2005

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