What is hypothermia?
- Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposures to cold temperatures. When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced. Lengthy exposures will eventually use up your body’s stored energy, which leads to lower body temperature. Cold temperatures can be brought on by a number of factors such as ambient air, dampness, water, and wind exposure to name a few.
- Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia especially dangerous, because a person may not know that it’s happening and won’t be able to do anything about it.
- While hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water. Heat loss to air and water are the most common causes of hypothermia.
In fact, most cases of hypothermia occur when temperatures are between 30 and 50 degrees F. Windy conditions and wet clothes can work together to chill the unaware, even on a summer day. In water temperatures from 70-80 degrees, exhaustion or unconsciousness can set in within 3-12 hours; 60-70 degrees, 2-7 hours, and in water from 50-60 degrees, you could be unconscious in 1-2 hours.
Each year there are approximately 700 to 1500 patients in the United States who have hypothermia noted on their death certificate. Adults between the ages of 30 to 49 are more likely affected, with men being ten times more likely than women. However, the true incidence of hypothermia is relatively unknown. Even with supportive in-hospital care, the mortality of those with moderate to severe hypothermia still approaches 50 percent.
Who’s most at risk?
Victims of hypothermia are often:
- Older adults
- Babies sleeping in cold bedrooms
- Small children due to the lower body mass
- People who remain outdoors for long periods—the homeless, hikers, hunters, boaters, people who work outdoors in the elements, etc.
- People who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.
- In addition to hypothermia from environmental exposure, many medical conditions can cause hypothermia including hypothyroidism, adrenal insufficiency, sepsis, neuromuscular disease, malnutrition, thiamine deficiency, and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- The most common medications that put one at risk for hypothermia are antianxiety drugs, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and opioids.
Symptoms of hypothermia
Adults and children:
- Shivering (in the beginning shivering may be a sign of hypothermia, however it isn’t always present).
- Exhaustion or feeling very tired
- Fumbling hands
- Memory loss
- Slurred speech
- bright red, cold skin
- very low energy
Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If you notice any of the above signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95° F, get medical attention immediately!
If you are not able to get medical help right away, try to warm the person up.
- Get the person into a warm room or shelter.
- Remove any wet clothing the person is wearing.
- Warm drinks can help increase body temperature, but do not give alcoholic drinks. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
- Warm the center of the person’s body—chest, neck, head, and groin—using an electric blanket, if available. You can also use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
- Get the person proper medical attention as soon as possible.
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 person gently, and get emergency assistance immediately.
- Perform CPR, even if the person appears dead. CPR should continue until the person responds or medical aid becomes available. Keep warming the person while performing CPR. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.
How to prevent hypothermia
- Dress in loose layers, allowing air trapped between clothing to maintain warmth
- Make sure you are hydrated.
- Eat sufficient calories to maintain body heat
- If caught in an emergency situation don’t eat snow, it will drop your core body temperature. Only drink water or other liquids that are above freezing point
- Small children (and elderly) may not be aware they are cold, always be aware of their clothing- hat, gloves, boots, dry warm socks are essential wear
What is frostbite?
Frostbite is a type of injury to the skin caused by freezing. It leads to a loss of feeling and color in the areas it affects, usually extremities such as the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation (removing the affected body part).
Who’s most at risk?
Those at risk for frost bite:
- Have poor blood circulation
- Are working outside in the cold
- Are not properly dressed for extremely cold temperatures
- Are exposed to a cold wind chill
- People who have cardiac insufficiency, diabetes and stroke
- Heavy alcohol consumption
What are the signs and symptoms of frostbite?
If you notice redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin—frostbite may be beginning. Any of the following signs may point to frostbite:
- A white or grayish-yellow skin area
- Skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
- Numbness to exposed area. Ears, nose, chin, hands, and feet are most at risk for frostbite
A person who has frostbite may not know they have it until someone else points it out because the frozen parts of their body are numb.
If you notice signs of frostbite on yourself or someone else, seek medical care. Check to see if the person is also showing signs of hypothermia. Hypothermia is a more serious condition and requires emergency medical care.
- Get the person into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on feet or toes that show signs of frostbite—this increases the damage.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Put the areas affected by frostbite in warm—not hot—water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
- If warm water is not available, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, you can use the heat of an armpit to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can easily burn.
Don’t substitute these steps for proper medical care. Frostbite should be checked by a health care provider.
How to prevent frostbite
- Dress in loose, light, comfortable layers. Wearing loose, light layers helps trap warm air. The first layer should be made of a synthetic material, which wicks moisture away from your body. The next layer should be insulating. Wool and fleece are good insulators and hold in more body heat than cotton. The top layer should be windproof and waterproof. A down parka and ski pants can help keep you dry and warm during outdoor activities.
- Protect your feet and toes. To protect your feet and toes, wear two pairs of socks. The first pair, next to your skin, should be made of moisture-wicking fabric. Place a pair of wool or wool-blend socks on top of those. Your boots should also provide adequate insulation. They should be waterproof and cover your ankles. Make sure that nothing feels tight, as tight clothing increases the risk of frostbite.
- Protect your head. To protect your ears and head, wear a heavy wool or fleece hat. If you are outside on a bitterly cold day, cover your face with a scarf or face mask. This warms the air you breathe and helps prevent frostbite on your nose and face.
- Protect your hands. Wear insulated mittens or gloves to help protect your hands from the cold.
- Make sure snow cannot get inside of your boots or clothing. Wet clothing increases the risk of developing frostbite. Before heading outdoors, make sure that snow cannot easily get inside of your boots or clothing. While outdoors, if you start to sweat, cut back on your activity or unzip your jacket a bit.
- Keep yourself hydrated. Becoming dehydrated also increases the risk of developing frostbite. Even if you are not thirsty, drink at least one glass of water before you head outside, and always drink water or a sports drink before an outdoor workout. In addition, avoid alcohol, as it increases your risk for frostbite.
- Recognize the symptoms. In order to detect frostbite early, when it’s most treatable, it’s important to recognize the symptoms. The first signs of frostbite include redness and a stinging, burning, throbbing, or prickling sensation followed by numbness. If this occurs, head indoors immediately.