Prevent and Treat Frostbite & Hypothermia

With temperatures around Ontario below freezing nearly every day lately, it’s important to stay warm. In cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced, which can lead to serious health problems. This occurs from inadequate protection against exposure to cold temperatures. The very young and elderly are the most susceptible to developing hypothermia when exposed to cold temperatures.

The risk and extent of hypothermia is directly influenced by presence of wet clothing, contact with metals, wind-chill, and extent of temperature gradient between the body and its surroundings. Vulnerability is increased when circulation is impaired by cardiovascular disease, alcohol intake, exhaustion, and/or hunger.

Frostbite Caution

Since skin may be numb, victims of frostbite can harm themselves further. Use caution when treating frostbite and:

  • Unless necessary, do not walk on feet or toes with frostbite
  • Do not use a fireplace, heat lamp, radiator, or stove for warming
  • Do not use a heating pad or electric blanket for warming
  • Do not rub or massage areas with frostbite

Signs of frostbite

  • Signs and Symptoms
    • Redness or pain in any skin area may be the first sign of frostbite.
  • Other signs include:
    • a white or grayish-yellow skin area
    • skin that feels  unusually firm or waxy
    • numbness

Hypothermia symptoms

  • Adults:
    • shivering
    •  exhaustion
    • confusion
    • fumbling hands
    • memory loss
    • slurred speech
    • drowsiness
  • Infants:
    • bright red, cold skin
    • very low energy

What to do if someone has hypothermia

  • If a person becomes unconscious, get medical help immediately. If cardiac arrest (heart attack) has occurred, have someone call for medical assistance and then apply CPR.
  • WARNING: Do not warm the person too fast.
  • Bring the person indoors or to a dry place protected from the wind.
  • Remove wet clothing and cover the person with dry blankets. Make sure to cover the head, hands, and feet.
  • Put the person in a cot or bed next to a warm — not hot — heater.
  • Lie under the covers next to the person to transfer your own body heat. If possible, have someone else lie on the other side.
  • Give the person warm — not hot — broth or soup. Do not give alcohol to drink.
  • Wrap an infant inside your own clothing against your skin.

How to prevent hypothermia & frostbite

  • Wear warm, multi-layered clothing with good hand and feet protection (avoid overly constricting wrist bands, socks, and shoes).
  • Wear warm headgear. This is particularly important since significant heat is lost through an unprotected head.
  • If possible, change into dry clothes whenever clothing becomes wet.
  • Find appropriate shelter to stay warm.

Article adapted from King County Public Health and the CDC.

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