How to Identify and Treat Hypothermia and Frostbite

December 15, 2023

For those who spend time outdoors in the winter, either for work or leisure, it’s crucial to understand how the cold impacts your body. Cool temperatures increase the risk of encountering serious health issues like hypothermia and frostbite. Be sure to safeguard yourself against cold conditions, which can rapidly escalate into emergencies, posing significant threats to life and limb.

How Cold Weather Affects You

When exposed to cold weather or immersed in cold water, your body experiences several changes to conserve heat, particularly around vital organs. Freezing conditions, combined with factors like wind, rain, and sweat, can significantly reduce your skin temperature and overall body heat. Contact with cold surfaces and even breathing will further drop your body’s temperature, so it’s vital to seek warm shelter.   

To maintain its core temperature, your body restricts blood flow to extremities such as your face, arms, hands, legs, and feet, making these areas more susceptible to frostbite. Additionally, a slight drop in core body temperature can lead to hypothermia, impacting the functioning of your brain and body. If hypothermia becomes severe, it can be life-threatening.

How to Stay Warm in Cold Weather

  • Be aware of the temperature and wind chill. Take note of the highs and lows of the day, dress appropriately, and be prepared with extra clothing, etc., in case you’re held up.
  • Wear proper clothing that covers all your skin, and dress in layers. Layering your attire and wearing the right shoes/boots, hat, scarf, and gloves will offer you the best protection. The inner clothing layer should wick sweat away from the skin. The middle layer should insulate and keep heat in, while the outer ‘breathable’ layer should repel wind, snow, and rain.
  • Avoid staying in the cold too long, take breaks regularly, and don’t let any body part get exposed to the cold. Stay active to maintain body heat.
  • Drink plenty of warm fluids (tea, water, etc.), but avoid caffeine and alcohol, which will dehydrate you.  
  • If signs of hypothermia or frostbite emerge, immediately seek shelter from the cold.

How to Identify and Treat Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is around 98.6°F, and hypothermia sets in when your body temperature drops below 95°F. This condition can affect the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well, which makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because the person may not realize it’s happening and won’t be able to take appropriate actions.

The primary objectives of first aid are to reestablish a normal body temperature and provide care for any related issues until emergency medical services (EMS) personnel arrive.

What Are the Signs of Hypothermia?

  • Shivering
  • Numbness or weakness
  • Glassy stare
  • Lethargy or impaired judgment
  • Loss of consciousness

What Should You Do if Someone Has Hypothermia?

  • Call 9-1-1.
  • Gently move the person to a warm place.
  • Monitor their breathing.
  • Give rescue breathing and CPR if needed.
  • Take off any wet clothing and ensure they are dry.
  • Gradually warm the person by wrapping them in blankets or dressing them in dry clothing.
  • Do not warm the person too quickly by placing them in warm water. Instead, use hot water bottles or chemical hot packs wrapped in a towel or blanket before applying.
  • Warm the person’s core first (trunk, abdomen), not the extremities (hands, feet).

How to Identify and Treat Frostbite

Frostbite is a cold-related injury that occurs when the skin and underlying tissues freeze due to exposure to extremely cold temperatures. It most commonly affects body parts that are farther from the heart and more exposed, such as the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin.

What Are the Signs of Frostbite?

  • A cold and prickly feeling in the affected area.
  • Numbness or a lack of feeling in the affected area.
  • Skin that appears waxy, is cold to the touch, or is discolored (flushed, white or gray, yellow or blue)
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness.

What Should You Do if Someone Has Frostbite?

  • Move the person to a warm place.
  • Handle the area gently; never rub the affected area.
  • Warm the affected area gently by soaking it in lukewarm water (100–105 degrees F) until it appears red and feels warm.
  • Loosely bandage the area with dry, sterile dressings.
  • If the person’s fingers or toes are frostbitten, place dry, sterile gauze between them to separate them.
  • Avoid breaking any blisters.
  • Do not allow the affected area to refreeze.
  • Seek professional medical care as soon as possible.


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