We’re heading into the winter season and no matter where you live, you’re bound to experience below-freezing temperatures. Up here in the north, we live in below-freezing temps for about 4 months straight. If you’re down south, you may get an arctic storm or two that brings plunging temps, whipping winds, and maybe even snow that sticks to the ground. With this cold air comes the threat of hypothermia and frostbite, two conditions that are very dangerous but totally avoidable. Knowing how to stay safe and warm when outside in arctic air can save your life.
Just because it feels like the tundra when you open your front door doesn’t mean all your fun has to be confined to four walls. Get out there with your sled, skis, snowshoes, or snowman-making kit and have a blast, just keep these tips on noticing, preventing, and curing frostbite and hypothermia in mind to stay safe and warm!
Signs of Frostbite & Hypothermia
When I hear the word frostbite, I instantly think of pictures I’ve seen of Mt. Everest climbers who survived the harrowing climb 5 ½ miles into the sky but returned with noses and cheeks that look charred and burned. This was my first exposure (bad pun intended) to frostbite, and I was shocked at what it looked like. While frostbite that looks blue or black and is hard to the touch is the most severe form of frostbite, it’s not the most common. The most common forms of frostbite are “frostnip” and “superficial frostbite”, the two less-severe forms. These are the types of frostbite that occur most often to people who are out doing what they love in the winter, like skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, and walking their dogs. In addition to being uncomfortable because of the nippy temps, you’ll also notice these signs of frostnip or superficial frostbite setting in:
- Skin is turning pale yellow or white in color
- Skin may burn, itch, sting, or feel like it’s being poked with pins & needles
- Skin becomes hard
- Skin looks shiny, almost waxy
- Skin that gets and stays numb, even after being inside for a while
- Once skin thaws out, blisters form underneath the skin and are filled with fluid or blood
Frostbite happens when skin is exposed to sub-freezing temps for a period of time and it actually starts to freeze, much like how water freezes into ice. How fast frostbite happens depends on how chilly the air is and how windy it is. In extreme cases, the early stages of frostbite can set in in 5 minutes!
In addition to protecting your skin and extremities (fingers, toes) from frostbite, you also have to bundle up during the winter to avoid suffering from hypothermia. Hypothermia is an emergency situation that occurs when your body temperature drops below its normal temperature of 98.6°, even by just a few degrees. When your body loses heat faster than it can make it and your temp drops below 95°, you are in the early stages of hypothermia. Advanced hypothermia leads to failure of the nervous system, respiratory system, and eventually the heart. It most often occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to cold weather or falling into a cold body of water. Knowing the signs of hypothermia is important, as mild hypothermia can often be overlooked and progress into severe hypothermia all too fast. Look for these symptoms of hypothermia when out in the cold:
- Breathing faster
- Trouble speaking
- Lack of coordination
- Shivering stops
- Advanced lack of coordination
- Mumbling, slurred speech
- Poor decision making (trying to take off layers of clothes despite being cold)
- Tiredness, lack of energy
- Starting to lose consciousness
- Slow, shallow breathing
Prevention is Key
Taking steps to prevent frostbite and hypothermia from setting in is the best way to protect yourself when you head out for winter fun. The temps may be frigid and the winds may be wicked, but if you follow these prevention tips, you’ll stay safe and warm in the bone-chilling temps:
Prevent frostbite and hypothermia by remembering this acronym: COLD
- Wear a hat that fully covers your ears
- Wear insulated mittens (mittens let fingers touch and body heat circulate, gloves do not)
- If you work up a sweat, change into dry clothes if possible; if not possible, then unzip to air out for a just a minute or two, then zip back up. Or simply avoid activities that will make you sweat.
- Layer loose clothing so that heat can circulate: first layer should wick moisture from your body, second layer should insulate (think fleece or wool), third layer should be waterproof and wind-resistant
- Layer socks: First layer should resist moisture, second layer should insulate (think wool)
- Wear waterproof boots that come up high enough to not let snow inside
- If you get wet, get out of your wet clothes ASAP. The combination of wet clothes and chilly temps are the perfect recipe for frostbite and hypothermia.
Curing Frostbite & Hypothermia
When you’re out in the cold, your body works to stay warm by sending the majority of your blood to your vital organs, such as your heart. When this happens, blood flow is diminished to your extremities, making it easier for frostbite to set in on your fingers and toes. If you fear that you might have frostbite, there are some things you should (and shouldn’t!) do to help treat it properly.
If you think that mild frostbite has set it, do the following:
- Immediately go indoors to warm up
- Soak affected areas in WARM water (104-107°F) or place a warm, wet washcloth on areas that can’t be soaked (cheeks, nose, forehead) for about 30 minutes
DO NOT do the following:
- DON’T rub your skin, as this can damage it if it’s frozen
- DON’T put hands and feet in HOT water; if your skin is numb, you may not be able to feel if the water is too hot and you could end up with burns as well as frostbite
As your frostbite is healing, your skin may turn red and feel like it’s burning or stinging. It will return to normal as it fully heals.
If you think that moderate-severe frostbite has set in, go to the ER immediately where they will do the following:
- Warm you up with blankets and warm sponges
- Restore blood flow to frostbitten areas
- Give you pain medication; this may be needed for nerve pain as your skin warms up
- Administer imaging tests (MRI) to determine how many layers of your skin have been affected
- Scrape off dead skin
- If you have blackened skin (extreme frostbite), surgery to remove the dead skin may be needed so that the skin around it doesn’t die as well
If you or someone you know is suffering from hypothermia, get help right away. Immediate attention could be the difference between life and death.
Until help arrives, do the following to help warm someone up:
- Very gingerly get them to a warm location. Any jarring or fast movements could trigger cardiac arrest. Handle them gently, no rubbing.
- If you can’t get them out of the cold, shield them from the wind by blocking it with your body (put yourself between the person and the wind, but do not lay on top of them)
- Cover the person with dry blankets or coats if you have some. Make sure to cover their head (leaving their face exposed) so that heat doesn’t escape.
- Remove any of their wet clothing. Cut it or tear it off if needed to avoid excessive movement
- If you’re inside where it’s warm, remove your clothing and theirs and lie next to the person to warm them with your own body heat. Cover yourselves with blankets or coats to trap the heat in.
- If you have warm beverages and the person is alert, help them slowly drink something that is warm, sweet, non-alcoholic, and not caffeinated. Do not give them drinks like coffee or soda that will dehydrate them.
- If you have warm, dry compresses (plastic, fluid-filled bags that warm when squeezed) or a towel that’s been warmed in a dryer, you can set it on their neck, chest wall, or groin, but DO NOT put it on their arms or legs. This forces cold blood back to their vital organs, causing the core temp to drop and could lead to death.
- DO NOT apply direct heat from a heat lamp, hot water, or a heating pad. This heat is too extreme and could damage the person’s skin or cause irregular heartbeats.
Once in the hospital, the following treatments may occur to treat hypothermia:
- Warm salt water may be administered through an IV to help warm the blood that’s circulating through the body
- The person’s airways may be warmed by using a mask or nasal tube filled with humidified oxygen to help raise body temperature
- Blood may be taken, warmed up, and then introduced back into the body to help warm the circulating blood and organs
Have you ever experienced frostbite or hypothermia? Tell us about your experience below!