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Frigid Cold Safety: Frostbite and Hypothermia

For many in the Northern states, and even in the southern states, frostbite and hypothermia can be real threats to personal safety during the cold winter months. Winter activities can be fun, but it is essential to understand the dangers of extreme temperatures, protecting against frostbite and hypothermia.

Though you may not be living in the top five coldest cities in America (Barrow, AK; International Fall, MN; Gunnison, Co; Jackson, WY; and Caribou, ME), many areas can often see weeks on end of below freezing temperatures. With the recent cold spout affecting the northeast and southern states; it is crucial to address and understand the dangers of cold temperatures.

Before Going Out

Before venturing outside in the winter, it is important to check the temperature and limit your time outside, especially when the weather is wet or windy. Bundling up in several layers of loose clothing helps with retaining heat, as the air between the layers helps to keep you warm. A lot of body heat can be lost when your head and neck are uncovered, so make sure to wear hats, earmuffs, or scarfs; do not forget the gloves and heavy socks!
Bundling up is especially important for older adults and young children . Keeping warm is vital to avoid medical issues, even inside the home, when temperatures outside are below freezing. Those that have diabetes, thyroid problems, Parkinson’s disease, memory loss, and arthritis have a harder time staying warm, so keep bundled even inside if necessary.

Signs of Frostbite

Even bundling up sometimes is not enough to protect the skin from Frostbite. With fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin being most commonly affected. Frostbite, at its worst, can lead to amputation, but when caught early, it is possible to prevent permanent damage.
Frostbite affects the skins’ surface first, becoming cold and numb, and the coloring will change to appear white, waxy, or grayish-yellow. If prolonged, frostbite can affect all layers of the skin spreading into the tissue and muscles, forming blisters, and even turning the tissue black.
If affected by frostbite, seek medical attention and go indoors immediately. Constrictive clothing and jewelry should be removed to help with blood circulation to the affected area. Elevating the frostbitten area can help with reducing pain and swelling. For superficial frostbite, soaking regions affected in water that is 100 to 105 degrees, can help soften the tissues.

Hypothermia Symptoms

When the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees, hypothermia will set in. Severe shivering is one of the first signs of hypothermia and is the body’s attempt to keep warm. As the cold persists, shivering can give way to drowsiness or exhaustion, puffy or swollen face, pale skin, confusion, shallow breathing, irregular heartbeat, slurred speech, loss of coordination, and, in the end, unconsciousness and death.
If someone is experiencing hypothermia, move the individual inside and call for medical attention immediately. Keeping the individual horizontal, place blankets, towels, or even newspapers, beneath, on, and around the victim. Make sure to cover the victim’s head and feet to reduce the loss of body heat. Handle the victim gently since hypothermia can lead to cardiac arrest. Other’s body heat can also help warm the individual through body heat transfer. Giving the person something warm to drink can help, but avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine since they can stress the heart.

Sledding or building a snowman or just playing in the snow can be fun, but make sure to limit exposure and bundle up in layers. If exhibiting any signs of frostbite or hypothermia, seek medical attention immediately.

Sources: NationalSafetyCouncil.org, NIH.gov