Hypothermia and Frostbite

Winter weather produces many health hazards. Among them are Hypothermia and Frostbite. Certain populations are at more risk of developing hypothermia: (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:

Adults:

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

Infants:

  • bright red, cold skin
  • very low energy

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

Frostbite is another concern with winter weather. Frostbite is injury to the body caused by freezing. The most vulnerable areas of the body are nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. The first sign of frostbite may be redness or pain in any skin area. The victim may be unaware as the tissue is frozen or numb.

The following signs may indicate frostbite:

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

Frostbite may occur with hypothermia. Hypothermia is a more serious medical emergency. Seek medical attention immediately. If you only suspect frostbite and medical care is not available:

  • 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.

Information for the above article was obtained directly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website: http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe/hypothermia.asp and http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe/frostbite.asp.

Information provided by Dana H. Breeding, RN Health Educator from Community Wellness, of Augusta Health. To contact Dana related to the above information, please call (540) 332-4988) or (540) 932-4988.