Is it Frostbite or Hypothermia?
With the extreme cold and snow bearing down, plenty of people have the uncomfortable tasks of shoveling their driveways, cleaning ice off their cars, or paving a way through the yard for vertically-challenged pets. When we spend too much time in the elements during extreme temperatures, we become vulnerable to exposure-related ailments, and in the winter, those are predominantly Hypothermia and Frostbite.
With the assistance of CDC guidelines, we have compiled the main things you need to know about each condition, signs and symptoms, and what to do if you need to seek treatment.
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. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won’t be able to react.
Hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, but it 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 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.
Recognizing Hypothermia in Adults:
- Fumbling hands
- Memory loss
- Slurred speech
Recognizing Hypothermia in 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 and you should seek immediate medical attention. As you wait for medical assistance, take the following steps:
- 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.
A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately. CPR should be provided while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds, or medical aid becomes available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.
Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by exposure to below-freezing temperatures. Ice crystals form within the affected body parts, and then blood cannot flow through the frozen tissue, causing the frozen tissue to be deprived of blood and oxygen. The combination of freezing and oxygen deprivation causes tissue damage or tissue death, leading to amputation. Frostbite most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.
At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin. A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.
Signs and Symptoms of Frostbite:
- Weakness or clumsiness with extremities, such as with your hands or feet
- Numbness, stinging, burning, or tingling sensation
- Coldness or firmness of tissue, with a waxy feeling
- Pain and inflammation, especially during the thawing process
- White, blue, or grayish-yellow skin area
- Blisters that may be filled with clear or bloody fluid
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. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance. Regardless of what affliction is suspected, taking the following precautions while waiting for medical care:
- 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.
These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical care. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider. It is a good idea to take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold-weather health problems. Knowing what to do is an important part of protecting your health and the health of others.
Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with extreme cold-weather conditions. By preparing your home and car in advance for winter emergencies, and by observing safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather, you can reduce the risk of weather-related health problems.
If you find yourself in an emergency, dial 911 immediately.
For more information about cold weather preparedness, general health, preventive medicine, or information about finding a physician near you – visit Regional Health.