It’s cold out again. How do you avoid frostbite and hypothermia?

It’s cold out again. How do you avoid frostbite and hypothermia?

Even though spring is coming up soon, it’s important to remember to take precautions during cold weather like much of Illinois and Wisconsin is experiencing this week to prevent frostbite or hypothermia.

If you like to ski, snowshoe or snowmobile, you should keep in mind that wind chills can be a problem for exposed skin even in weather that isn’t frigid.

What should you wear?

  • It is best to dress in layers. A base layer of thermal wear, wool, silk or synthetic (such as polypropylene) , should be worn against the skin. This will help trap more heat and dissipate moister better then cotton. Followed by a bulky middle or insulating layer like synthetic fleece or wool to trap air. The outmost layer should be wind and water resistant/proof.
  • A scarf or knit mask that covers face and mouth.
  • A hat that can cover your ears.
  • Insulated mittens or gloves. They should be water resistant if you expect to get them wet or snowy.
  • A water-resistant coat.
  • Water-resistant and insulated boots with warm socks.

What’s frostbite?

Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing body tissue. Frostbite can cause permanent damage and can result in amputation in the worst cases. The nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes are the most vulnerable.

The signs include:

  • Skin that turns white or grayish yellow.
  • Skin that feels unusually firm or waxy.
  • Numbness.

What’s hypothermia?

Hypothermia happens when your body temperature drops due to exposure to cold or being cold and wet. You lose body heat faster than you can produce it. It can gradually make you sleepy, confused and clumsy. Since it can sneak up on you, you may not even realize it’s happening.

If the body temperature drops below 95 degrees, get immediate professional medical care.

Anyone can get hypothermia. Babies and old people are at higher risk. Babies can get hypothermia from sleeping in a cold room. People who drink too much or use illicit drugs are also at higher risk.

The signs for adults include:

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion
  • Confusion
  • Fumbling hands
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness

The signs for infants are a bit different:

  • Bright red, cold skin
  • Very low energy

What should I do if someone has frostbite or hypothermia?

Call a health care professional immediately. If medical care is not immediately available:

  • Get the victim into a warm place as soon as possible.
  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • Warm the victim under dry layers of blankets and clothing.
  • Do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes unless absolutely necessary. Walking increases the damage.
  • Put the affected area in warm – not hot – water.
  • You can also warm the affected area using body heat. For example, use your armpit to warm frostbitten fingers.
  • Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp or the heat of a stove, fireplace or radiator for warming. Frostbite makes an area numb, a burn can result.

Dr. James Vito Pavlich is an Emergency Medicine physician at Aurora Medical Center in Burlington, WI.

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About the Author

Dr. James Vito Pavlich
Dr. James Vito Pavlich

James Vito Pavlich, DO is an Emergency Medicine physician at Aurora Medical Center in Burlington.