First Aid for Hypothermia and Frostbite
August 26, 2013
Have you ever been outside in the cold so long that you’ve felt like your toes were going to fall off? Did your toes or fingers start to get numb, and turn red or pale white? These are the signs of frostnip, what Dr. Eric Weiss, author of Wilderness and Travel Survival calls “an early cold injury to the skin [that] does not usually lead to permanent damage.”
Even though frostnip is often mistaken for frostbite, frostnip is an early stage of frostbite. So it’s important to get yourself warm, quick! Frostbite is a serious condition that can potentially result in the loss of a digit or a limb if it is not treated quickly. The conditions leading to frostbite can also lead to life-threatening cold emergencies like hypothermia.
It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite early so you can preserve your life and your limbs!
What are the Signs/Symptoms of Frostbite?
- Skin becomes white and waxy in appearance
- Frostbitten limbs become hard like a piece of wood
- Tingling feeling in limbs, followed by numbness
- Aching or throbbing in limbs
Symptoms for severe frostbite include:
- Gangrene (blackened limbs that result from dead tissue)
- Tendons, muscles, or nerves may become damaged
How do you treat Frostbite?
According to the Red Cross and Medline Plus, in order to treat Frostbite you should:
- Handle the person gently. Do not rub the affected area.
- Move the person to a warmer area or try to shelter them from the cold.
- Since Frost bite is a precursor to hypothermia, and at times accompanies it, check for signs of hypothermia in the victim and treat them accordingly.
- Warm the frostbitten area by soaking it in warm water (not hot water) until it is red and feels warm.
- Wrap the area in sterile dressings.
- If fingers or toes are frozen, place gauze between them to keep them separated.
- DO NOT let the area refreeze (refreezing and thawing causes the most damage to tissues).
- DO NOT break any blisters.
- Get Medical attention quickly.
According to Wilderness and Travel Medicine, Hypothermia is when body temperature lowers drastically below 98.6°F. Those suffering from hypothermia whose core body temperature lowers to 90°F (32°C) are victims of mild to moderate hypothermia.
If the core body temperature drops to 83°F (28°C), the heart begins to beat irregularly. Once the core body temperature lowers to 75-80°F (24-27°C) the person may die.
Your goal is to try to bring their body temperature back to a normal level until medical attention arrives.
What are the Signs/Symptoms of Hypothermia?
According to the Red Cross the signs of Hypothermia include:
- Shivering (if they stop shivering it means their core body temperature has dropped below 88°F (31°C)).
- Loss of consciousness
- Impaired judgment
- Glassy stare
How do you treat Hypothermia?
- Move the person out of the cold and into a warm area, lay them on their back on a blanket or other warm item to insulate them from the ground
- Remove any wet clothing
- Make sure that the person is breathing normally. Administer CPR if needed.
- Use a warm, dry compress [chemical hot pack] to restore heat.
- Place this compress ONLY on the person’s neck, chest, or groin.
- Placing on arms or legs could push cold back to the heart or lungs causing body temperatures to drop again.
- If they are conscious give them warm beverages (non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated)
- Use your own body temperature to warm the person if there is no other heat source available.
- Take off your clothes and theirs; lie next to them wrap blankets around both of you.
As you try to restore normal body temperature, warm their body slowly. Warming the body too quickly can cause shock and serious heart arrhythmias.
- Warm slowly by gradually wrapping blankets or putting warm clothing on their body
- DO NOT submerge any of the body in warm water, nor put on an electric heating pad, or heating lamp as this can cause skin damage and irregular heartbeat.
Get the person medical attention immediately
How can I prevent Frostbite and Hypothermia?
These prevention techniques are especially applicable to those who like to do outdoor winter activities like snowboarding, skiing, snowshoeing, etc.
- Windmilling for Warmth
This is a cool trick from Wilderness and Travel Medicine:
- If you are experiencing Frostnip or begin to start feeling numbness in your fingers swing your arms around in a circle like a windmill for a few minutes. This will increase blood flow to your hands and fingers, delaying the onset of frostbite
- Come out of the cold in regular intervals to warm up and relieve yourself of the cold
- Eat a well-balanced, carbohydrate-rich meal before going out in the cold so your body will have the energy to help you maintain your core body temperature.
- If you notice any tingling or numbness, get out of the cold
- Keep yourself dry. Bring extra clothes so that you can change immediately if you get wet.
- Wear lots of layers and adjust as needed if you start to sweat.
- Watch the weather; if the forecast predicts extreme temperatures, stay inside.
- Have available at least 1 wind-proof layer.
In a nutshell, if you’re ever in the cold, make sure that you bundle up and take regular breaks from extreme conditions to warm yourself up.
If you’re forced to be in the cold because of an emergency (your car breaks down in the cold, for example) make sure you’re prepared. Store blankets, extra clothes, hand warmers, and matches in your car emergency kit so you won’t suffer from the extreme effects of hypothermia and frostbite.