Cold Weather Injuries Are Not Cool

By: Doug Bardwell – American Red Cross Volunteer

North Dakota and Minnesota FloodsWinter is beautiful, provided you are inside looking out.  If you are outside, and can’t get in to get warm, you better be prepared.  Hypothermia, frostnip and frostbite are all possibilities, and all can be serious.

Hypothermia is the medical emergency that can result from losing body heat faster than it can be replaced.  Your normal body temperature is 98.6°F; but you can start to notice signs of hypothermia when your temperature falls below 95°F.  Typical causes are being inadequately clothed or exposure to extreme cold temperatures, like icy water. Avalanche victims often suffer hypothermia if not rescued quickly.

First aid varies with the severity of the frostbite, but generally, if the hypothermia is mild:

  • Call for help immediately
  • Move the person inside a tent or dry shelter to prevent further wind damage.
  • Remove wet clothing
  • Place the victim in a sleeping bag and cover their head
  • Do not allow them to sit or stand
  • If alert, a person may be given warm drinks like soup or hot chocolate – no alcohol or caffeine.
  • Build a fire to warm they gradually until a heated ambulance arrives.

For severe hypothermia, consider the situation life-threatening and seek medical assistance immediately.  Do not rub the person’s extremities, as that my cause ice crystals in the blood to rupture skin cells.  Even if the person’s pulse drops to 2-3 beats per minute, they may still be revived with expert treatment. Do not initiate CPR.

Frostnip is the least serious of the three, but must be treated properly. It occurs when noses, cheeks, ear lobes, fingers or toes are exposed to freezing temperatures and the top layer of skin freezes. The skin becomes white in color and feels hard to the touch.

First aid consists of:

  • Gently rewarming the affected area by holding it against non-freezing skin elsewhere on the person’s body or that of the rescuer.
  • Do not rub the skin for fear of rupturing the ice crystals in the cells.
  • Do not use hot water bottles, etc. that are drastically warmer than the skin’s normal temperature.
  • Frostbite can be caused by exposure to extremely cold temperatures or by contact with extremely cold objects. During frostbite situations, the tissue temperature dips below the freezing point and normal blood flow is obstructed. Symptoms of mild frostbite include slight pain, while severe frostbite can occur with no pain, or possibly a burning sensation resulting in visible blisters.

First aid is similar to hypothermia above. In addition:

  • Loosely cover the affected area with a sterile dressing.
  • Place gauze between fingers and toes to absorb moisture.
  • Again, do not rub the affected areas.

Prevention is obviously preferable to any of the above.  Keep all extremities protected when out in the elements, including your eyes if winds are extreme.  For more first aid hints, consult the Red Cross First Aid app available for both Android and iOS devices, or consider taking a Red Cross sponsored first aid class.

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