How serious is hypothermia and frostbite?

It’s definitely winter! And when exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Without proper precautions, cold temperatures can leave you susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite – so it’s important to take precautions to prevent them and recognize the symptoms. Dr. Carl Olden of Pacific Crest Family Medicine offered tips to do so Dec. 23, 2014, on KIT 1280.

How serious is hypothermia?

Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy. The result is abnormally low body temperature, and body temps that are too low affect the brain, making you unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won’t be able to do anything about it.

Hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, but it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water. Likely victims are:

  • elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating
  • babies sleeping in cold bedrooms
  • people who remain outdoors for long periods – the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.
  • people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs

What are the warning signs?

  • In adults: shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, drowsiness
  • In infants: bright red, cold skin, very low energy

What to Do

If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95 degrees, the situation is an emergency – get medical attention immediately. Otherwise, get victim into a warm room or shelter, remove wet clothing and warm the center of the body first. Give warm beverages – not alcohol – to help increase body temperature.

What are the symptoms of frostbite?

  • A white or grayish-yellow skin area
  • Skin that fees unusually firm or waxy
  • Numbness

At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin and seek medical attention.

Frostbite most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.

These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical care. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider. It is a good idea to take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold weather.

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