Frostbite is an injury to the body that causes a loss of feeling and colour in affected areas – especially the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. Frostbite can cause permanent damage to the body and in severe cases, lead to amputation.
If you are outside for a prolonged period of time during the cold winter months perform regular checks for frostbite. At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin because frostbite may be setting in. The first indications of frostbite include a white or grayish-yellow skin area and skin that feels unusually firm or waxy. A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissue is numb.
Do not ignore shivering. It's an important first sign that the body is losing heat. Persistent shivering is a strong signal to return indoors.
What should I do if I see someone with warning signs of frostbite?
If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical attention. Frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure to the elements; therefore, it is highly recommended that you first determine whether the victim shows signs of hypothermia (read description below), which is a more serious medical condition and requires immediate assistance.
To assist frostbite victims proceed as follows:
- Place the victim in a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes because this will increases damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm not hot water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
- You can also warm the affected area using body heat, i.e. the heat from your armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage. This can cause more damage.
- Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat from a stove, fireplace or radiator to warm the affected area because it is numb and can easily burn.
Please Note: The procedures listed above were referenced from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and are not substitutes for proper medical care. Hypothermia requires immediate medical assistance and frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider. We recommend that you take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold-weather health situations. Knowing what to do is an integral component in protecting your family's health and the health of others.
When exposed to cold temperatures over a prolonged period of time your body loses heat faster than it can produce which can result in hypothermia - an abnormally low body temperature. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move normally. Hypothermia is particularly dangerous because a person may not know what is happening and therefore unable to do anything about it.
Hypothermia occurs most commonly at very cold temperatures, but it can occur at cool temperatures (above 5°Celsius or 40°Fahrenheit) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.
Who is most at risk for hypothermia?
- elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating
- babies sleeping in cold bedrooms
- children left unattended
- adults under the influence of alcohol
- mentally challenged individuals
- people who remain outdoors for long periods of time
What are the warning signs for hypothermia?
- confusion/fumbling hands
- memory loss/slurred speech
- bright red, cold skin
- very low energy
What should I do if I see someone with warning signs of hypothermia?
If you suspect a person has signs of hypothermia, take his/her temperature. If it is below 95°F (35°C), the situation is an emergency so make sure the person receives medical attention immediately. If medical care is not available, begin warming the person, as follows:
- Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
- Remove wet clothing.
- Warm the centre 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.
- Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but DO NOT give alcoholic beverages because they draw heat from the extremities.
- Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
- After the body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket including the head and neck.
- Get medical attention as soon as possible.
A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and not seem to have a pulse or breathing. In this case:
- Handle the victim gently
- Get emergency assistance immediately
- Provide CPR even if the victim appears dead
- Continue providing CPR while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical assistance becomes available.
- In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.
Do you know what to do if you are stranded in a car during a winter storm?
Ensure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide
- Secure a cloth to your window as a visual signal to emergency crew and rescuers. Roll down a window, place a light, brightly coloured cloth (like a scarf) through the window and then roll up the window to clamp it in place. The item will flap around in the wind like a flag and draw attention to your stranded vehicle. In fact, you can stick a flag or sports banner outside your window as well.
- Locate and move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger seating area.
- Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing, blankets or newspapers.
- Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems.
- Run the car motor and heater for about 10 minutes per hour, opening one window slightly to let in some air.
- Ensure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Keep moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and stay warm.
- Do not eat snow because it will lower your body temperature.
- Avoid getting gasoline or alcohol on your skin while de-icing, fuelling your car or when using a snow blower. When these products are in contact with the skin, they greatly increase heat loss from the body.
Clothing Advice for Cold Weather
Ensure that the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven and wind resistant to reduce the loss of body heat.
Wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton.
Wet clothing chills the body rapidly so in all circumstances try to stay dry.
Excess perspiration will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of clothing whenever you feel too warm.
- Double layered hat that covers your ears
- Scarf or knit mask that covers your face and mouth
- Long sleeves that are snug at the wrist
- Double layered mittens (they are warmer than gloves)
- Water-resistant coat and shoes
- Several layers of loose-fitting clothing