Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia, and how to treat them

Here's a comprehensive guide on how to recognize and address these potentially dangerous cold-related emergencies.
Stock photo of a thermometer.
Posted at 3:44 PM, Jan 15, 2024

As crippling cold weather engulfs much of the United States, plummeting temperatures can bring an increased risk of frostbite and hypothermia. Understanding the signs and knowing how to address them can be crucial in preventing potentially severe consequences.

Here's a comprehensive guide to recognizing and treating cold-related emergencies.

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Frostbite occurs when a person's skin and underlying tissues begin to freeze due to exposure to cold temperatures. The extremities, such as fingers, toes, and ears, are particularly vulnerable to these conditions. Recognizing the signs of frostbite early on is crucial in preventing permanent damage.

Signs of frostbite:

1. Numbness: The affected area may start to feel numb or tingly, indicating less blood flow to the area.

2. Discoloration: The skin may become pale, or white. In severe cases, it can turn black or blue.

3. Unusual appearance: The affected skin may become unusually firm or waxy-looking.

4. Stiffness: Limited movement and stiffness in the muscles and joints surrounding the affected area.

Treating frostbite

1. Seek shelter: Immediately move to a warmer environment to prevent further exposure to cold temperatures.

2. Remove wet clothing: Any wet or damp clothing can exacerbate the effects of frostbite. Replace them with dry, warm layers.

3. Address affected area(s): Submerge affected areas of the body in warm — not hot — water, or use a warm compress to gradually reverse the effects of frostbite. Avoid direct exposure to heat sources like fires, space heaters, and radiators.

4. Avoid rubbing: Do not forcibly rub affected areas as it can cause more damage.

5. Medical attention: Seek medical attention immediately for severe cases of frostbite or if conditions do not improve.

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Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing body temperature to drop to dangerously low levels. It too can affect anyone exposed to cold weather for an extended period of time.

Signs of hypothermia:

1. Shivering: As hypothermia sets in, a person's body may begin to shiver uncontrollably.

2. Garbled speech: Slurred words or difficulty in articulating words and speaking articulately.

3. Confusion and fatigue: Hypothermia may cause confusion, disorientation, lethargy, and extreme tiredness.

4. Weak pulse: As the body struggles to function, the pulse weakens, and leads to shallow breathing.

Treating hypothermia:

1. Seek shelter: Immediately move to a warmer environment.

2. Remove wet clothing: Wet or damp clothing can exacerbate heat loss from the body. Replace with dry, warm layers.

3. Warm drinks: Sip on a warm, nonalcoholic beverage to help raise the body's internal temperature.

4. Blankets: Wrap the body in blankets or warm layers of clothing to aid in the warming process.

5. Medical attention: Severe cases of hypothermia require immediate medical attention. 

As cold temperatures continue to grip much of the U.S., staying vigilant and properly preparing for the weather can prove crucial in staying safe. By knowing the signs and appropriate measures, individuals can enjoy winter activities — like sledding, skiing, and snowboarding — while minimizing the risks associated with cold weather.