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Frostbite and Hypothermia 

Frostbite is usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, particularly if they are accompanied by a low wind-chill factor or by brief exposure to extremely cold temperatures. Frostbite occurs when body tissue (usually skin) becomes so cold the blood vessels contract, reducing blood flow and oxygen to the affected body parts. People are often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues have gone numb.

Frostbite is most likely to affect body parts that are farther away from the body core, and therefore, have less blood flow. These include the feet, toes, hands, fingers, nose, and ears. It can permanently damage the body and in severe cases, lead to amputation of the affected area.

Symptoms include loss of feeling and color around the face, fingers, and toes and white or grayish-yellow looking skin, firm or waxy skin and numbness.

If frostbite is indicated, get the person to a warm place and soak the affected part or entire body in very warm but not hot water. You can also warm the affected area using body heat - for example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers. Do not massage the affected area or use a heating pad as that may cause more damage.

Hypothermia is when body temperature drops to an unsafe level. If it drops to less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the person should be taken immediately to the nearest health care facility.

Signs of hypothermia include heavy shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech or drowsiness. Treat mild to moderate hypothermia by getting the person to a warm room and start warming the center of the body first—chest, neck, head, and groin. Keep them dry and wrapped up in warm blankets, including the head and neck. A warm, non-alcoholic, caffeine-free liquid such as broth, soup, or warm milk can help raise their core temperature.

People most susceptible to hypothermia are:

  • Elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating.
  • Individuals with poor circulation.
  • Babies sleeping in cold bedrooms without proper clothing for the conditions.
  • Children left unattended.
  • Adults under the influence of alcohol.
  • Mentally ill individuals.
  • People who remain outdoors for long periods—the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.

Visit the CDC's website for more information on how to recognize and treat frostbite and hypothermia (PDF).

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