Understanding frostbite and hypothermia: Staying safe and healthy in extreme cold

Baptist Health Hardin. January 16, 2024

ELIZABETHTOWN, KY (Jan. 15, 2023) – As seasonal temperatures drop, it is important for people to be aware of the potential dangers of winter weather.

Cold temperatures and wind chill are not only uncomfortable, but they place people at risk for health concerns such as frostbite and hypothermia. It is important to know how to protect yourself and what to do if you see signs of either of these conditions.

“Winter weather poses many risks for people’s overall health,” stated Peter Popovich, DO, emergency medicine physician for Baptist Health Hardin. “Frostbite and hypothermia are two significant health hazards. Both are serious medical conditions that can cause permanent damage to the body. By protecting yourself, knowing the signs, and what to do if they occur, you can reduce your risk.”

Frostbite is when a part of the body freezes, causing damage to the skin. It can happen anytime the temperature is under 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind chill can also be a factor since it makes the air colder.

“Most at risk are the body’s extremities such as fingers and toes, and parts of the face,” said Dr. Popovich. Signs of frostbite include numbness, swelling, and discoloration of the skin. The skin may appear whitish, grayish, or bluish. Frostbite may also cause pain in the affected areas.”

If you or someone you know is showing signs of frostbite, it is important to get medical attention as soon as possible. In the meantime, get to a warm area indoors. Remove all outerwear, wet clothing, and jewelry on parts of the body affected. Dress in warm clothing.

Avoid walking on the affected feet or toes to reduce the risk of further damage. While you may feel the urge to rub the area to warm it, rubbing can also increase the risk of damage to skin.

Instead, treat the affected areas with warm – and not hot – water to help bring the skin’s temperature back to normal. If warm water is not available, use warmer parts of the body to warm the affected areas, such as placing a hand beneath an arm.

Because frostbitten areas are numb, they can easily burn. Do not use a heating pad, fireplace, stove, or other heating device.

In severe cases, frostbite can cause permanent damage to muscles and bones, or a severe infection that can even lead to amputation. If frostbite is in an advanced stage, permanent damage such as nerve damage, arthritis, scarring, cold sensitivity, and nail loss. Once you have experienced frostbite, you are more likely to experience it again.

During extremely cold temperatures, your body loses heat faster than it can make it. Being outside in the cold too long can cause your body to use all its energy stores, further reducing body temperatures and placing you at risk for hypothermia.

“Because brain function is affected by extremely low temperatures, someone with hypothermia may move and think more slowly than normal and may not recognize the signs of trouble,” said Dr. Popovich.

But hypothermia doesn’t only occur in extreme temperatures. It can happen even in milder weather if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweating, or has been submersed in cold water.

Know the signs of hypothermia – fatigue or exhaustion, cognitive and motor changes such as memory loss, confusion, impaired speech, and difficulty using the hands.

If you observe anyone showing the signs of hypothermia, seek medical attention immediately. In the meantime, make sure to get the person to a warm place and remove any wet clothing. It is important to warm the head, neck, and torso with an electric blanket if possible. Warm, non-alcoholic drinks can also help. Once the body’s temperature increases, keep the person dry and wrapped loosely in a warm blanket.
Frostbite and hypothermia can occur at the same time.

Protect yourself in cold temperatures
Dr. Popovich offers tips to protect yourself during the winter months:

  • Avoid going outdoors in extreme temperatures.
  • Limit time outdoors to under 15 minutes when possible.
  • Dress warmly and in layers. Wear clothing that is wind and water resistant.
  • Cover your extremities by wearing gloves and a hat; cover exposed parts of the face with a scarf; and wear thick socks.
  • If you must be outdoors, be sure to keep moving and take breaks to get warm.
  • When traveling in extreme cold, keep blankets, gloves, food and water, and a first aid kit in your car.
  • Always have your phone and a charger with you.
  • Tell someone where you are going when you leave.

Always seek medical attention if you suspect signs of frostbite, hypothermia, or other serious medical condition.

Winter weather can pose many other health risks, such as injuries and health conditions incurred from falls, motor vehicle accidents, and heart attacks resulting from overexertion in cold temperatures. By using good judgment, dressing appropriately, and limiting your time outdoors, you can reduce risks and maintain good health and safety during the winter months.