Frostbite and Hypothermia

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icicles on a roped barrier shield
icicles on a roped barrier shield

Photo courtesy of Marcel Ekelschot © 2018

Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and colour to an area of the body – especially the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes when exposed for a prolonged period of time during cold temperatures.  Frostbite can cause permanent damage and in severe cases, lead to amputation.

Frostbite presents as white or grayish-yellow skin and usually feels firm or waxy.  People are often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissue is numb.

What should I do if I see someone with warning signs of frostbite?

If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical attention.  Frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure to the elements, therefore it is highly recommended that you first determine whether the victim shows signs of hypothermia (read description below) which is a more serious medical condition and requires immediate assistance.

Here are some helpful tips to assist a person suffering from frostbite.

  • Place the victim in a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes because this will 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).
  • You can also warm the affected area using body heat, i.e. the heat from your armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
  • Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage.  This can cause more damage.
  • Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat from a stove, fireplace or radiator to warm the affected area because it is numb and can easily burn.

Please Note: The procedures listed above were referenced from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and are not substitutes for proper medical care.  Hypothermia requires immediate medical assistance and frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider.  We recommend that you take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold-weather health situations.  Knowing what to do is an integral component in protecting your family's health and the health of others.

frozen winterland

Above photo courtesy of Marcel Ekelschot © 2018

Hypothermia

When exposed to cold temperatures over a prolonged period of time, your body loses heat faster than it can produce which can result in hypothermia - an abnormally low body temperature.  Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move normally which makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know what is

child wrapped in winter clothing

happening and therefore unable to do anything about it.

Hypothermia occurs most commonly at very cold temperatures, but it can occur at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water.

Who is most at risk for hypothermia?

  • elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating
  • babies sleeping in cold bedrooms
  • children left unattended
  • adults under the influence of alcohol
  • mentally challenged individuals
  • people who remain outdoors for long periods of time

What are the warning signs for hypothermia?

Adults:

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

Infants:

  • bright red, cold skin
  • very low energy

What should I do if I see someone with warning signs of hypothermia?

If you suspect a person has signs of hypothermia, take his/her temperature.  If it is below 95°F (35°C), the situation is an emergency so make sure the person receives medical attention immediately.  If medical care is not available, begin warming the person, as follows:

  • Get into a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove wet clothing.
  • Warm the centre 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 the body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket including the head and neck area.
  • Get medical attention as soon as possible.

A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and not seem to have a pulse or breathing.  In this case:

  • Handle the victim gently
  • Get emergency assistance immediately
  • Provide CPR even if the victim appears dead
  • Continue providing CPR while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical assistance arrives.
  • In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.

Do you know what to do if you are stranded in a car during a winter storm?

  • Secure a cloth or brightly, coloured scarf to your window as a visual signal to emergency crew and rescuers.

The item will flap around in the wind like a flag and draw attention to your stranded car.   In fact, you can stick a flag or sports banner outside your window as well.

  • Locate and move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger seating area.
  • Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing, blankets or newspapers.
  • Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems.
  • Run the car motor and heater for about 10 minutes per hour, opening one window slightly to let in some air.
  • Ensure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Ensure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Keep moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and stay warm.
  • Do not eat snow because it will lower your body temperature.

Whether you are an adult or child, the best clothing for cold weather is:

  • Double layered hat that covers your ears and forehead
  • Scarf or knit balaclava that covers your face and mouth
  • Long sleeves that are snug at the wrist
  • Double layered mittens (they are warmer than gloves)
  • Water-resistant coat and shoes
  • Several layers of loose-fitting clothing

Ensure that the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven and wind resistant to reduce the loss of body heat.

Wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton.

Wet clothing chills the body rapidly so in all circumstances try to stay dry. 

Excess perspiration will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of clothing whenever you feel too warm. 

Avoid getting gasoline or alcohol on your skin while de-icing, fuelling your car or when using a snow blower.  When these products are in contact with the skin, they greatly increase heat loss from the body.

Do not ignore shivering.  It's an important first sign that the body is losing heat.  Persistent shivering is a strong signal to return indoors.

icicles

Photo above courtesy of Marcel Ekelschot © 2018

Just looking at these photos makes me cold!  Brr!  

Now that you have read all the do's and don'ts for Frostbite and Hypothermia, I hope you have a marvellous winter with lots of fun filled activities for the entire family to enjoy!  Play safe.  Be smart. Be kind. Watch out for each other!

Additional Resources

For highly detailed information, Diligencia Investigative Reporting recommends the following article:

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