If you’re a fan of being outdoors, there’s a good chance you don’t pay a lot of attention to hot and cold times of the year. There’s plenty of activity to be had in all seasons, and more and more, winter is no longer an idle time of year when people hunker down indoors.
Skiing, snowmobiling, sledding, hunting, and even hiking are all popular snow-bound activities that millions of Americans partake in every year. But with our increasing love for the colder part of the calendar, comes increasing risk and exposure to a potentially deadly condition.
What Is Hypothermia?
Almost always associated with frigid weather, hypothermia doesn’t need the darkest depths of winter to turn deadly. In fact, there are few instances where it can occur indoors.
Let’s take a look at what exactly is hypothermia, who’s most at risk, and what you need to do if you or someone you know comes down with it.
When we are out in cold weather, our bodies lose heat. The longer we spend in that cold environment, the faster we lose that heat and the less likely we are to generate more. Once this occurs, our overall body temperature starts to decrease.
Once that temperature reaches a critical point, symptoms such as drowsiness or confusion set in and if not immediately treated can go quickly downhill from there. Other signs in adults include excessing shivering, exhaustion, and memory loss and slurred speech. With infants, cold, bright red skin is a telltale sign.
Although it’s associated with extreme temperatures, hypothermia can occur in more mundane environments, sometimes without the individual realizing it.
If a person is wet from rain or sweat, hypothermia can occur in temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Babies sleeping in cold rooms can also get hypothermia as well as the elderly if not cared for with proper clothing or heat.
Other Risk Groups
We already touched on babies and the elderly who are susceptible if not properly cared for, but what about other high-risk candidates?
The homeless are the next highest risk group, particularly in northern climates. So too though are hunters and hikers, or any other outdoorsy individual. A lack of proper clothing or being ill-prepared, particularly in extreme temperatures, will make you a prime hypothermia candidate.
Someone who drinks a lot or uses illegal drugs will also be at risk as they lose the ability to retain heat and often do not recognize the oncoming symptoms.
If someone displays signs of hypothermia, medical attention needs to be immediate. Should a person’s body temperature drop to 95 degrees or below, you are dealing with an emergency. At this point, you should call medical help.
Removing the individual from the cold is the main priority, along with taking off any wet or damp clothing they may be wearing. From there, you should start warming the body, beginning in the center and working your way out. The chest, neck, and head should receive the initial focus.
Use dry blankets to cover the victim. You can also opt for an electric one, though if you suspect there may frostbite avoid this method. It may heat their skin too quickly and cause pain.
Warm beverages may be used to help raise a person’s temperature but under no circumstances, should they be given alcohol. If the person who is suffering from hypothermia happens to be unconscious, avoid giving them fluids as that can complicate matters further.
Once you start to see a rise in the person’s body temperature, keep them wrapped in a warm blanket. It’s important to remember that even if you call for help, action must be taken immediately to help raise the victim’s body temperature.
Remote Emergencies and Preventative Measures
In some cases, the location of the victim may be too remote to immediately get professional medical treatment. Of course, you should try your best. There are a few things you can do before heading out on a wintertime excursion to make sure you are well prepared for any eventuality.
First, you and anybody you regularly camp or travel with needs to be well versed in CPR, and not just to deal with hypothermia or other cold weather situations.
When outdoors, any number of things can happen to you or someone in your travel party, so it’s always smart to have multiple individuals trained in how to respond to a critical situation. The American Red Cross offers training classes across the country to help get you certified.
Next, recall that we mentioned that hypothermia doesn’t just occur outdoors in the coldest of climates. An ill-prepared car or vacation home (even your own home where an infant may sleep) can also become a prime environment for hypothermia.
Ensuring places that you spend considerable time during the colder months is paramount to avoid the condition.
Winterize your car and make sure the heater works. If traveling, make sure your gas tank is kept filled whenever possible and do not wander too far outside of reachable points of safety.
In your home, have seasonal maintenance performed on your heater or furnace to ensure it runs at optimal levels throughout winter. Keep your home at a warm, comfortable temperature. The cost difference between a few degrees is nominal when possibly avoiding a life-threatening situation.
Finally, if you visit a vacation home or cabin in the winter prepare it appropriately. If warmed only by the fireplace have the flue and chimney checked and cleaned regularly. And make sure there a plenty of blankets on hand to keep everyone warm.
Now that you have an understanding of hypothermia and how to treat it should you or someone you’re with show signs of it, what should you do if that other cold weather condition of frostbite occurs?
Frostbite is considered a less severe threat than hypothermia. The difference is their need for medical attention. With hypothermia, it should be immediate, whereas frostbite should be evaluated by a medical professional as soon as possible. That said, if a case of frostbite is suspected, steps can be taken to minimize the damage.
Identifying Frostbite and Risk Factors
Frostbite tends to occur in areas of our bodies not well protected from the cold. Extremities like the nose, ears, and fingers are the first areas impacted with toes, cheeks and your chin following close behind.
Initial signs include some level of pain and a numbing of skin or skin that starts to firm up with a wax-like feel. It may also change color from red to white to a grayish-yellow.
A key thing to remember is that due to the numbness, a victim may not realize the frostbite is developing. With that being the case, you should also travel with someone if you plan to be outside for prolonged periods of cold weather.
Something else to be mindful of is that aside from the common risk groups of infants and the elderly, people with poor circulation are at highest risk for frostbite.
Treatment and Prevention
When someone gets frostbite there are a few initial steps you can take that can help the victim feel more comfortable. However, there a lot more dont’s than do’s as your primary goal should be to minimize damage to the affected area.
Like hypothermia, get the victim out of the cold. From there though, the main focus is to treat frostbitten areas with warm water.
Do not use heating pads or a fireplace for heat. That includes a radiator or stove. Frostbite severely numbs the impacted area, and, thus, burns are common if you do not follow the proper steps.
You should also avoid rubbing areas or walking if your toes or feet have frostbite. Body heat is a good alternative but, again, refrain from doing anything that can further damage the frostbitten skin.
Also, do not wait to seek medical attention. Though not as life-threatening as hypothermia, quick medical evaluation helps to avoid long-term or permanent damage.
Prevention of frostbite has everything to do with how you dress in cold weather. Cover as much of your body as possible and be sure to layer your clothing. A water-resistant coat and boots can help you from getting unnecessarily chilled, and a scarf, knit hat, and gloves will keep the most at-risk areas covered.
Finally, avoid exposing your skin to the elements, especially in harsh or unusually cold conditions. Cold weather can be brutal and can move brutally fast in damaging exposed skin.
Winter is a fantastic time of the year. From the holidays and gathering with friends and family to the outdoor activities, it’s essential to keep your health in mind when you venture out.
And avoiding hypothermia and frostbite is easy if you take a little extra time and a few more steps to keep them at bay. The Centers for Disease Control even has a handy guide for you to reference and follow.
Common sense measures like dressing appropriately for the conditions and preventive action in your home and vehicle go a long way to keeping you safe from the dangers of winter.