What are hypothermia and frostbite?
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reminds Marylanders of the dangers associated with cold weather health hazards such as hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature falls below 95ºF. Nearly 600 Americans die each year from hypothermia.
Symptoms may include:
- Uncontrollable shivering
- Cold, pale skin
- Poor circulation
- Slurred speech
- Bluish or puffy skin
Frostbite refers to actual freezing and subsequent destruction of body tissue that is likely to occur any time skin temperature gets much below 32ºF. The areas most likely to freeze are toes, fingers, ears, cheeks and the tip of the nose.
Symptoms of frostbite include:
- Gradual numbness
- Hardness and paleness of the affected area during exposure
- Pain and tingling or burning in affected area following warming
- Possible change of skin color to purple
NEVER MASSAGE OR RUB FROSTBITTEN AREAS, AS THIS MAY CAUSE FURTHER DAMAGE TO THE SKIN.
How are hypothermia and frostbite treated?
Treatment for hypothermia:
- Get the person indoors to a warm room or shelter.
- Remove wet clothing and dry the person off, if needed.
- Warm the center of the body first — chest, neck, head and groin — using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels or sheets. Do not warm the hands and feet first. Warming extremities first can cause shock.
- Warm the person by wrapping him or her in blankets or putting dry clothing on the person.
- Do not immerse the person in warm water. Rapid warming can cause heart arrhythmia.
- Do not jostle, massage or rub.
- If using hot water bottles or chemical hot packs, wrap them in cloth; don't apply them directly to the skin.
- If the person is not breathing normally, begin CPR and continue until the person begins breathing or emergency help arrives.
- Give the person a warm drink, only if conscious. Avoid caffeine or alcohol.
- Once the body temperature begins to rise, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket. Wrap the person's head and neck as well.
- At the hospital, health care providers will continue warming efforts, including intravenous fluids and warm, moist oxygen.
Treatment for frostbite:
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes — this increases the damage. Immerse the affected area in warm — not hot — water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
- Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
Who is at risk?
There is increased risk for hypothermia in:
- Small children,especially babies, because they have a lot of skin surface area compared to the size of their little bodies and tend to lose heat quicker than older children and adults.
- People who suffer from illnesses, have impaired mental function or take strong medications that can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature. All of these factors can add up to significant risk increases among elderly persons.
- Persons who are hungry or are dehydrated.
- Persons with inadequate or wet clothing, both of which lead to faster loss of body heat.
- Persons who have been drinking alcohol, which hastens heat loss through the skin and lowers awareness levels.
Persons at greatest risk for frostbite include those with impaired circulation, the elderly, the very young and anyone who remains outside for prolonged periods. The danger increases if the individual becomes wet.
What is wind chill?
The wind chill index is the temperature your body feels when the air temperature is combined with the wind speed. It is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by the effects of wind and cold. As the speed of the wind increases, it can carry heat away from your body much more quickly, causing skin temperature to drop. When there are high winds, serious weather-related health problems are more likely, even when temperatures are only cool.
How can I prevent cold-related illness?
Use the layered approach when going outdoors:
Base Layer: Wear fabrics that keep your skin dry and prevent that clammy feeling.
Insulating Layer: Wear a vest or shirt made of fleece or wool. This may be added or removed depending on how cold you feel.
Windproof and Water-Resistant Outer Layer: Wear a jacket, preferably with a hood, to protect you from the elements.
Briefs: Wear briefs made of synthetic fabric. Cotton or cotton-blend fabrics hold moisture and won't dry quickly.
Tights or Long Johns: A pair of tights or winter weight pantyhose may be helpful when temperatures are below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, especially when it is windy. Long john bottoms are best. Tights or pantyhose can also help prevent chafing and chapped skin on the thighs and calves.
Hands: Keeping your hands warm is essential for cold weather comfort. Mittens are much better than gloves. If you keep your fingers together, they all help warm each other.
Socks and Shoes:
It is important to protect your feet from the elements when you are walking in cold weather.
Wear a hiking sock under a wool oversock. You may prefer a non-itchy wool sock that is machine washable. Be careful that you don't buy a sock so padded and bulky that it crowds your toes in your shoes.
Wear light hiking boots or trail running shoes that are waterproof. Be sure the shoes have a flexible sole. Your feet will be fighting each step if you cannot bend or twist the sole.
Protect your eyes, lips, skin, neck and face:
Sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm will also be helpful.
Sunscreen is especially needed in winter, as the sun's radiation is more intense and less expected.
Lip balm with sun protection will also prevent chapped lips. Both can also help protect your skin from wind and cold.
Wear a hood that goes over your head and neck, protecting your ears and leaving only your face exposed. This can also be pulled up over your mouth or nose if necessary.
What is carbon monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death. It is produced whenever any fuelm such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal, is burned. If appliances that burn fuel are used properly, the amount of carbon monoxide produced is usually not hazardous. However, if appliances are not working properly or are used incorrectly, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide can result.
What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
At moderate levels, symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include severe headaches, dizziness, confusion, nausea or fainting. Low levels can cause shortness of breath, mild nausea, and mild headaches, and may have long term effects on your health. If you experience symptoms that you think could be from carbon monoxide poisoning:
GET FRESH AIR IMMEDIATELY. Open doors and windows, turn off combustion appliances and leave the house. GO TO AN EMERGENCY ROOM and tell the physician you suspect CO poisoning. If CO poisoning has occurred, it can often be diagnosed by a blood test done soon after exposure.
What can I do to prevent cold-related illness for my pets?
If you have pets, bring them inside. If you cannot, make sure they have fresh, unfrozen water to drink and a shelter with adequate warmth. Don’t leave your animal in a car in cold weather.