Prolonged exposure to low temperatures, wind or moisture—whether it be out for a walk or in a stranded car—can result in cold-related illnesses such as frostbite and hypothermia. St. Alexius’ Emergency and Trauma physician Robert Bathhurst, MD, offers these tips to help you spot and treat these winter hazards.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is around 98.6 F (37 C). Hypothermia occurs as your body temperature passes below 95 F (35 C).
When your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs can't work correctly. Left untreated, hypothermia can eventually lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and to death.
Hypothermia is most often caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in a cold body of water. A person with hypothermia usually isn't aware of his or her condition, because the symptoms often begin gradually and because the confused thinking associated with hypothermia prevents self-awareness.
Symptoms of mild hypothermia are nearly identical to those of more severe hypothermia. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Faster breathing
- Trouble speaking
- Lack of coordination
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
Typical signs of hypothermia in an infant include:
- Bright red, cold skin
- Very low energy
When treating hypothermia first and foremost take the effected person out of the element (cold) and get them indoor. If you can’t get them indoors and you have a sleeping bag get inside with the person.
When exposed to very cold temperatures, skin and underlying tissues may freeze, resulting in frostbite. The areas most likely to be affected by frostbite are your hands, feet, nose and ears.
If your skin looks white or grayish-yellow, is very cold and has a hard or waxy feel, you may have frostbite. Your skin may also itch, burn or feel numb. Severe or deep frostbite can cause blistering and hardening. As the area thaws, the flesh becomes red and painful.
Gradually warm frostbitten areas. Put frostbitten hands or feet in warm water — 104 to 107.6 F (40 to 42 C). Wrap or cover other areas in a warm blanket. Don't use direct heat, such as a stove, heat lamp, fireplace or heating pad, because these can cause burns before you feel them on your numb skin. Don't walk on frostbitten feet or toes if possible. This further damages the tissue. Get emergency medical help if numbness or sustained pain remains during warming or if blisters develop.