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How to Protect Yourself from Frostbite and Hypothermia

December 22, 2016 | Dr. Gregory Grant

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woman-next-to-snowman.jpgWe may live in Ohio, but that’s no reason to stay inside as the weather turns chilly. Skiing, snowboarding and cross-country skiing all await. So does heading outside with the kids to build a snowman and, less fun, shoveling the driveway.

But this is also the time to take precautions to stay safe in the cold and snow and to protect yourself from frostbite and hypothermia.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 1,301 people die each year due to exposure to excessive natural cold. Hypothermia occurs when your body gets cold and loses heat faster than your body can make it. It usually happens by prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures and occurs more often in the very young and very old. The risk of hypothermia is also higher for drug and alcohol users. If someone begins to shiver violently, stumbles or can't respond to questions, you should suspect hypothermia.

Frostbite refers to the freezing of body tissue (usually skin) that results when the blood vessels contract, reducing blood flow and oxygen to the affected body parts. At first, skin will feel cold and prickly, followed by numbness. Next, skin will turn red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow and will be hard or waxy looking. In severe cases, the skin will blister after warming back up. Frostbite most commonly affects the toes, nose, ears, cheeks, chin and fingers.

The first step to frostbite prevention, obviously, in avoiding both conditions is not to get stranded anywhere in the cold or snow. So if you’re traveling in bad weather, keep a cell phone charger in your car and be sure someone knows where you’re headed and what time you expect to arrive. It’s also a good idea to carry emergency supplies in your car, including several blankets, matches, candles, a clean can in which you can melt snow for drinking water, a first-aid kit, dry or canned food, tow rope, booster cables, a compass and a bag of sand or kitty litter to spread for traction if you're stuck in the snow.

Before you venture out into the cold—whether for work or for fun—remember the acronym COLD.

  • Cover. Wear a hat, scarf and mittens, which are more effective in retaining heat than gloves. Make sure ears are fully covered.
  • Overexertion. Avoid activities that would cause you to sweat a lot. The combination of wet clothing and cold weather can cause you to lose body heat more quickly.
  • Layers. The CDC says you should wear an inner layer of wool, silk or polypropylene. The outer layer should be wind-resistant so you don't lose body heat from the wind. A water-repellent fabric will protect you from moisture, which can chill the body very quickly.
  • Dry. Stay as dry as possible. Get out of wet clothing as soon as possible. Be especially careful to keep your hands and feet dry, as it's easy for snow to get into mittens and boots.

If you do suspect someone has hypothermia, seek immediate medical attention. Remove any wet clothes, hats, gloves and socks and gently move the person to a warm location. If possible, begin warming the person with clothes and blankets. Use your own body heat if nothing else is available. Offer warm liquids, but avoid alcohol and caffeine.

Very mild cases of frostbite (called frostnip) can be treated with first-aid measures, but seek medical attention for all other cases. To treat frostnip, get out of the cold, remove all wet clothes and soak hands or feet in warm water—99 to 108 degrees—for 15 to 30 minutes. If a thermometer isn't available, test the water by placing an uninjured hand or elbow in it. It should feel very warm, not hot.

While you certainly don’t want to be scared to spend a day sledding or on the slopes this winter, it’s important to dress properly and be prepared to recognize and respond to hypothermia and frostbite.

Winter is also a great time, if you haven’t done so already, to take stock of your general health and get a handle on any issues or concerns. Same-day appointments are available by calling 419-660-2900.

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