What to look for and what to do if you suspect frostbite

Frostbite can happen in minutes and strike extremities such as fingers, toes, nose and ears - any exposed skin is vulnerable in extreme cold. Here's how to prevent frostbite and spot the symptoms.

If you’ve ever waited for a bus when the wind-chill is below zero, you understand why some school districts cancel classes on days when there is no ice or snow, but simply dangerously low temperatures.

Frostbite happens when the body is injured by freezing, leaving a loss of feeling and color in the body’s extremities – generally the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, finger and toes. Hypothermia, a situation where the body simply can’t warm itself up, often accompanies frostbite, and can lead to unconsciousness and even death.

You may have seen pictures on the news, where a sole hiker is found clinging to life, with blackened fingers and toes that will require amputation. Though that’s the image that often comes to mind when you think of frostbite or hypothermia, it doesn’t take getting caught in an avalanche or lost in a blizzard to get permanent damage from extreme weather conditions.

The risk is highest for people who have reduced blood circulation, or simply do not dress properly for the weather, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Waiting on a bus, shoveling the driveway or building a snowman can put a person at risk, if they are not dressed warmly enough, get wet or stay outside too long.

Signs that frostbite may be starting

At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, go inside or protect any exposed skin — frostbite may be beginning. Numbness, white or grayish-yellow skin or skin that feels unusually firm or waxy may indicate frostbite. Victims are often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out, because the frozen tissues are numb.

Hypothermia kicks in when the body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well.  If the body temperature drops below 95 degrees, the situation is an emergency, requiring immediate medical attention.

Hypothermia is particularly dangerous because of how fast it can happen, sometimes affecting victims so quickly that they can’t 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.

The CDC offers these life-saving tips if you detect symptoms of frostbite or hypothermia from exposure:

Frostbite, but no sign of hypothermia and immediate medical care is not available:

  • 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.

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In cases of hypothermia, first get the victim into a warm room or shelter

  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • 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.
  • Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
  • After the body temperature increases, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
  • Get medical attention as soon as possible.

Someone with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately. Even if the victim appears dead, CPR should be provided. CPR should continue while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical aid becomes available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.

These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical care, the CDC points out.

In the movie “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie said bundling up for the walk to school was like “getting ready for extended deep-sea diving.” While the same level of bundling isn’t always necessary here in Kentuckiana, dressing in layers is always a good bet. And listen up outside on days when schools and businesses are closed because of ice, snow or dangerously cold temperatures. When kids don’t want to play in the winter wonderland, that’s probably a good barometer that it’s too cold to stay outside for more than a few minutes.

Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with extreme cold-weather conditions. By preparing your home and car in advance for winter emergencies, and by observing safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather, you can reduce the risk of weather-related health problems.

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