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January 15, 2016

Emergency Care for Frostbite and Hypothermia

With cold temperatures and winter weather conditions currently sweeping the country, it’s a great time to understand what to do in case you encounter an incident of frostbite or hypothermia.

Frostbite

Frostbite develops when skin freezes. Body parts that are exposed to extreme cold, such as fingers, toes, earlobes, cheeks, and nose, are the most likely to be affected.

Early signs of developing frostbite include a pins-and-needles sensation and throbbing. Later signs include a loss of feeling in the affected part and firm, pale, cold, numb skin.

Minor frostbite can be treated with simple rewarming using skin-to-skin contact, such as a warm hand.

If more serious, quickly get the person to a warmer place. Remove wet clothing. If available, activate EMS.

When EMS is available, or there is any chance that the part may refreeze, do not try to re-warm the frostbitten area. Remove any jewelry from the affected areas, and place clean pads between frostbitten fingers and toes. Wrap the affected part with a clean towel or pad. Calm, comfort, and reassure the person until EMS providers arrive.

Do not rub or massage the affected area or disturb blisters on frostbitten skin. Never give the victim alcoholic beverages; they do not help and may be harmful.

If you are far from professional medical care, and there is no chance refreezing will occur, re-warm the affected part yourself. Immerse the frostbitten area in warm water for 20–30 minutes. The water should be warm (just above normal body temperature), not hot. Check and maintain the water temperature often. Severe burning pain, swelling, blistering, and color changes may occur.

Do not let the person use the affected part after it is thawed, and get the person to professional medical care as soon as you are able to.

Hypothermia

Cold, wet temperatures can result in a lowering of the internal body temperature. Hypothermia, a generalized cooling of the body, occurs when the internal core body temperature has decreased to 95° F or less. It is a life-threatening condition.

As the body temperature gets lower, body processes become impaired and eventually fail. Cardiac arrest may occur.

To help recognize hypothermia, look for pale, cold skin, uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking, and an altered mental status. Severe hypothermia can result in the loss of shivering and a slowing of the breathing and heart rate.

To care for the person, carefully and gently move them to a warmer place. Remove wet clothing and cover the person with something dry and warm. Cover their head and neck to retain body heat.

If available, activate EMS and get an AED if one is available. Be prepared to perform CPR and use the AED.

If you are far from professional medical care, begin actively re-warming the person. Place them near a heat source. Put containers of warm, but not hot, water in contact with the person’s skin.

It is best to recognize and treat hypothermia early. The chance for survival decreases as the condition progresses.  

Want to learn more about treating cold-related illnesses, along with other easy-to-learn, easy-to-do emergency care techniques? Click the button below to find an ASHI or MEDIC First Aid class near you.

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