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Identify, Prevent and Treat Frostbite and Hypothermia

Posted Date: 1/28/2015
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SI Advance Take Care February 2015

Identify, Prevent and Treat Frostbite and Hypothermia


The drastic day-to-day temperature changes have had us strolling out the door without gloves one day and bundled up the next.  If you don’t keep up with the forecast, you might find yourself unprepared for combating dangerously frigid temperatures.  Without the proper cold weather gear, you leave your body vulnerable to injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia.

Dr. Mansoor Khan, Chair of Emergency Medicine at Richmond University Medical Center, warns Islanders to take the extreme cold seriously. “Frostbite and hypothermia are both dangerous and can set in quickly. You have to make sure you wear layered clothes, limit your time outside, avoid alcohol, and cover up as much exposed skin as possible to help prevent severe cold injuries.” When watching for signs or symptoms, Dr. Khan suggests monitoring skin to look for a change in color, or painful sensations in the area exposed. “In serious situations confusion can set in, even loss of consciousness. If you think you or your family member may have frostbite or hypothermia, go to the doctor or come to the emergency room. If a person is unconscious or their temperature is below 95 degrees, do not wait, get emergency assistance immediately.”

Extreme cold temperatures trigger the human body to direct blood flow away from extremities and to the vital organs in order for survival.  This impaired circulation can result in skin cell damage in the form of frostbite.  Frostbite occurs in stages, the earliest being frostnip.  Symptoms of frostnip can occur within five to ten minutes of exposure to cold and include numbness and tingling in the affected area, along with reddened skin.  As the injury progresses to superficial frostbite, skin becomes whitened and hard, indicating critical lack of blood flow to the area.  When skin begins to feel warm despite not being thawed, this is a sign that the superficial frostbite is becoming more serious.  The most severe form of frostbite manifests as complete loss of sensation and blistered or black skin, indicating skin has become gangrenous.  The worst case would require that the affected area be amputated.

There are numerous precautions to take that will help prevent the development of frostbite when dealing with the frigid weather.  Since the cold causes blood to leave the extremities, avoid any activities that constrict blood vessels further, such as smoking cigarettes and consuming caffeinated beverages.  Focus on keeping your extremities warm with thick socks, a face mask and hat.  Opt for mittens instead of gloves as they are better for trapping and sharing heat from all fingers.  Wet skin becomes frostbitten much more easily; when layering up, begin with a base layer composed of synthetic material that repels moisture away from the body.

If it is too late for preventative measures and you have already gotten frostbite, refrain from the instinct to rub the area, which will only exacerbate the injury.  Frostnip can be easily reversed by breathing on the area of concern, or if hands are affected, by placing them underneath the armpits where heat does not escape.  In the case of superficial to deep frostbite, it is imperative that the individual receives medical attention.  When that is not possible, submerge the injured body part in water that is at least 100° and no warmer than 105°.  Make sure not to attempt to thaw the skin using dry heat from a stove, fire or heating blanket as the affected individual cannot feel temperature and the skin could burn.

As the body temperature decreases, the heartbeat slows, and the affected individual begins shivering and experiencing drowsiness, confusion and shallow breathing.  Infants and the elderly are at highest risk for hypothermia since the young lose heat more rapidly while older individuals cannot regulate body temperature properly.

While these extremely cold temperatures that we have been experiencing can be very dangerous, you can easily avoid frostbite injuries and hypothermia by following these guidelines and being prepared.  As always, the best option is to remain indoors when possible in order to stay safe and warm this winter!