Understanding Hypothermia and Frostbite

Learning the Signs of Frostbite and Hypothermia

If you and your family were stranded in an arctic storm, would you be able to reduce the risk of injury from hypothermia or frostbite? Knowing the symptoms of severe exposure to cold is important, especially if you work or pursue recreational activities outdoors in winter climates. Because the effects of exposure to cold temperatures can cause victims to be unable to think clearly or understand what may be happening, it's particularly important to know what to do if you see warning signs in another person. The information in this article on the signs of hypothermia and frostbite, and the procedures to follow if you notice someone who has them, was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs when a person's body loses heat faster that it can be produced. When body temperature gets too low, it's very dangerous because the person may not know what's happening and will be unable to take preventive action. Normally, hypothermia occurs when the temperature is very cold, but it can occur even at temperatures above freezing if the person is chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water. According to the CDC, those most at risk for hypothermia include:

  • elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating
  • babies sleeping in cold bedrooms
  • children left unattended
  • adults under the influence of alcohol
  • mentally ill individuals
  • people who remain outdoors for long periods, including the homeless, hikers, skiers, hunters, and service members training or fighting in very cold or wet weather

What are the warning signs of hypothermia?

In adults, you need to look for:

  • shivering and exhaustion
  • confusion or fumbling hands
  • memory loss or slurred speech
  • drowsiness

In infants, check for:

  • bright red, cold skin
  • very low energy

How should you respond to hypothermia warning signs?

Whenever a person's body temperature drops below ninety-five degrees, emergency medical attention is necessary. If you notice warning signs of hypothermia and medical care is not immediately available, follow these steps to raise body temperature:

  • Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove any wet clothing from the victim.
  • Warm the center of the body first. This includes the chest, neck, head, and groin. Use an electric blanket, if available or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
  • Give the victim warm beverages to help increase body temperature, but do NOT give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
  • Keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket after body temperature has increased. This includes the head and the neck.
  • Provide CPR if the person is unconscious. CPR should be provided and continued while the person is being warmed. In some cases of hypothermia, victims who appear to be dead can be successfully brought back with CPR.

What are the warning signs of frostbite?

Frostbite is the freezing of parts of the body, most often the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. It can cause permanent damage, and severe cases often lead to amputation. Victims are sometimes unaware of frostbite because frozen tissues lack sensation. The signs of frostbite include:

  • a white or grayish-yellow skin area
  • skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
  • numbness

How should you respond to signs of frostbite?

Frostbite, though not as serious as hypothermia, still requires medical attention. If there is frostbite but no evidence of hypothermia, and medical attention is not available, take these steps:

  • Get the victim into a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Do not allow the victim to walk on frostbitten feet or toes. Unless absolutely necessary, the victim should not walk because it increases the damage to the feet and toes.
  • Immerse the affected area in warm - not hot - water.
  • Warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
  • Don't 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.

Remember that these steps are not a substitute for proper medical care. Hypothermia is a medical emergency, and frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider as soon as possible.


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