Ease the freeze

| January 03, 2006

How to keep hypothermia and frostbite at bay.

Don’t plan to get through this winter by just toughing it out. Saying “I can handle the cold” might just set you up for some potentially serious trouble that can arrive quickly, unannounced and sometimes unnoticed.

During these cold-weather months, it is important to stay warm and dry whether you are skiing the slopes or driving through snowstorms. Hypothermia and frostbite are common conditions that can occur both outdoors and indoors, but they are preventable and treatable with the right know how.

Hypothermia
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees F, but it doesn’t occur only in subzero temperatures. Being in windy weather with wet clothes, prolonged exposure to cold conditions, even temperatures from 32 to 50 degrees F can cause hypothermia. The first warning sign is uncontrollable shivering, and other symptoms include loss of concentration, loss of muscle control, skin on the face turning gray or blue, drowsiness or lethargy, and, in the case of severe hypothermia, lack of shivering and slowed breathing. A person may also experience slurred speech.

Older people are more susceptible to hypothermia because changes with age make it more difficult for a person to discern his or her body temperature. Other risk factors include heart and circulatory problems, tight clothing that restricts circulation, fatigue, hunger and dehydration. Drinking alcohol causes rapid loss of body heat and should be avoided during cold weather.

To prevent hypothermia, wear layers of loose clothing. Natural fibers like wool retain heat more efficiently. Wear insulated boots and warm headwear, since most body heat is lost through the scalp. Drink plenty of fluids and eat regularly. While driving, take regular breaks to avoid fatigue. It is also a good idea to carry a thermometer during severely cold weather to periodically measure body temperature.

If driving solo in cold weather, have a buddy to call in case of a snowstorm or stalled truck.

But remember, both mild and severe hypothermia can cause mental confusion, and you may not be able to recognize your own condition.

If available, always seek medical attention immediately before self-treating hypothermic conditions. For mild hypothermia, seek shelter from the wind, but don’t force yourself to move around because your body is not capable of warming itself anymore. Make a fire if possible and remove wet clothes. Wrap yourself naked in a thick blanket or sleeping bag, because the space between your skin and the object of warmth should be minimal. If someone else is suffering from hypothermia, help them get warm by lying near them, but don’t rub their skin. It is more important to warm the body and head before the arms and legs, but make sure the extremities are covered with gloves, a hat and socks to prevent heat loss.

Dress again in dry clothes, and once you feel better, drink a warm beverage without caffeine or alcohol.

If you run into another driver who is suffering from hypothermia, check for blood circulation, breathing and pulse. For severe hypothermia, a person may be breathing only once a minute. If the person isn’t breathing, start CPR. Compress the chest 15 times for every two breaths. Move the person out of the wind and into a shelter, but don’t rub the victim. Send for medical help immediately, and stay with the victim until someone arrives. It is important to remember that mild hypothermia is treatable, but if left untreated it can lead to severe hypothermia, a coma and possibly death.

Frostbite
While it’s the most common injury associated with severe cold, frostbite is nothing to sneeze at. Frostbite is frozen body tissue and occurs with exposure to extreme wind, cold and wet conditions.

There are two types of frostbite: superficial and deep. White, waxy or grayish-yellow patches on the skin characterize superficial frostbite. The skin is stiff but soft underneath. To treat, remove wet clothing or any clothing that could prevent circulation. Seek shelter and submerge affected areas in warm, not hot, water of about 100 degrees. Warm compresses also work. If warm water is not available, wrap in warm blankets.

Place sterile gauze between fingers and toes to absorb moisture and keep them from adhering together. Slightly elevate the affected area and seek medical attention immediately. Do not use direct heat from a fire or heating pad. Do not rub frostbitten skin, as this may cause tissue damage. Re-warming skin may cause a burning sensation, and skin will turn red and may swell, but when the skin turns pink the area is thawed. Re-warming usually takes between 20 to 40 minutes.

Deep frostbite affects hands and feet and is characterized by waxy, pale and solid skin. Blisters may appear, so move the victim inside and seek medical attention immediately


Cold Weather Protection

  • Avoid getting wet, because wet clothing loses 90 percent of its insulating value.

  • Avoid alcohol in cold conditions.
  • Plan ahead by always carrying blankets, matches, a first aid kit and a mobile phone in case of emergency.
  • If you or someone else is suffering from hypothermia or frostbite, do not rub the skin. This can tear the skin and cause tissue damage.
  • ALWAYS wear a hat, gloves and a scarf in cold weather. Insulated boots are also a good idea.
  • Avoid exertion in cold weather, especially if you have heart disease or high blood pressure. Your circulatory system is already working hard to keep your body warm.

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