How to Recognize Frostbite and Hypothermia

When the temperature drops, hypothermia and frostbite are real dangers. When it’s freezing outside, your best defense is to limit time outdoors. However, sometimes we do find ourselves exposed to extreme cold temperatures due to things like power outages, becoming stranded while driving, outdoor recreation, snow shoveling, etc. In these cases, your best bet is to be prepared. 
To prevent frostbite and hypothermia:

  • Limit time outdoors or in prolonged cold conditions
  • Wear clothing that is warm enough for the temperature 
  • Dress in layers
  • Stay dry – this includes protecting yourself from moisture from precipitation as well as sweat

Frostbite 

Frostbite happens when skin and underlying tissues freeze. It can happen in severe cold weather and during high winds. The areas of the body most likely to be affected by frostbite are the hands, feet, nose, cheeks, chin and ears. 

Identifying Frostbite

Signs and symptoms of frostbite include:

  • At first, cold skin and a prickling feeling
  • Numbness, itching, burning sensation
  • Red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
  • Blistering after rewarming, in severe cases

Read more frostbite information from Mayo Clinic.

Treating Frostbite Dos and Don’ts

Do:

  • Get out of the cold
  • Remove any wet clothing
  • Gradually warm affected skin
  • If hands and feet are affected, put them in warm water
  • Wrap or cover other areas in warm blanket
  • Protect your skin from further exposure. If outside, warm frostbitten bands by tucking them into armpits.
  • Circulation is back if skin is red, tingling, or there is a burning sensation as it warms. If numbness, sustained pain or blisters develop, get medical help.

Don’t

  • Rub snow on frostbitten skin
  • Don’t walk on frostbitten toes or feet if possible. It can cause more tissue damage
  • Use direct heat such as a stove, heat lamp, fireplace or heating pad to warm affected skin. That can cause burns. 
  • Do not rub the affected areas.
  • Don’t thaw the affected areas if there is a chance of them freezing again.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia happens when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, resulting in a drop in internal body temperature. When this happens, the heart, nervous system and other organs don’t function normally. 

Hypothermia can set in when a person is exposed to cold, immersed in cold water, or exposed to cool dampness for prolonged periods. 

Identifying Hypothermia

The signs and symptoms usually develop slowly. People with hypothermia typically experience gradual loss of mental acuity and physical ability so they may be unaware they need medical help.

Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bright red, cold skin (in infants)

Read more hypothermia information from Mayo Clinic.

Treating Hypothermia Dos and Don’ts

Do:

  • Call 911. Monitor breathing while waiting for help to arrive. Begin CPR if breathing stops or is dangerously slow or shallow.
  • Move the person out of the cold 
  • Cover the person’s head
  • Remove wet clothes and replace with warm, dry covering
  • Apply a warm compress to center of body, head, neck, chest, groin.
  • Offer warm, nonalcoholic drinks unless the person is vomiting 
  • If outside, insulate the body from the cold ground
  • Protect from the wind

Don’t

  • Apply direct heat or use hot water, heating pad or lamp to warm the victim. 
  • Apply heat to the arms or legs. This can be fatal because it forces cool blood back to the heart, lungs, and brain causing core body temperature to drop.