Red Cross Central Illinois Chapter

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Frostbite & Hypothermia

Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused when blood vessels close to the skin start to constrict. The same response may also be a result of exposure to high winds. Wind chill can bring the temperature to below freezing for humans and animals. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation.

Hypothermia is a serious condition that predominantly affects males and people over 60. People generally suffer from hypothermia after being over-exposed to extremely cold weather, wind chills, ice and snowstorms, freezing rain or sleet. Hypothermia can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

Dress to prevent frostbite and hypothermia

Dress appropriately for cold weather. The air temperature does not have to be below freezing for someone to experience cold emergencies, such as hypothermia and frostbite. Wind speed can create dangerously cold conditions, even when the temperature is not that low.

  • Most of your body heat is lost through your head, so wear a hat – preferably, one that covers your ears. Mittens provide more warmth to your hands than gloves.
  • Wear waterproof, insulated boots to help avoid hypothermia or frostbite by keeping your feet warm and dry and to maintain your footing in ice and snow.
  • Wear several layers of loose-fitting, moisture-wicking clothing. Be sure the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven, preferably wind resistant, to reduce body-heat loss caused by wind. Wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton.

Recognize warning signs

Recognize frostbite warning signs: These include gray, white or yellow skin discoloration, numbness, and waxy feeling skin. Seek medical attention immediately if you have these symptoms.

Recognize hypothermia warning signs: These include memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, exhaustion, and uncontrollable shivering.

What should I do if I see someone with warning signs of frostbite?

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, as described previously. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance.

If there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia, and immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:

  • 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.

Note: 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 Red Cross 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.

What should I do if I see someone with warning signs of hypothermia?

If you notice signs of hypothermia, 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.

NOTE: 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. Even if the victim appears dead, CPR should be provided. CPR should continue 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.
 

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