Hypothermia and Frostbite: Prevention, Recognition, and Treatment

Hypother­mia occurs when your body runs out of ener­gy to keep your body warm. When exposed to frigid tem­per­a­tures, your body starts rat­tling like an old engine strug­gling up a hill, in response to the extra work need­ed to pump blood to the brain. Climb that hill too long, and your body will no longer be able to sup­ply the ener­gy need­ed to keep warm, result­ing in a break down on the side of the road.

Frost­bite is a cold injury to your body tis­sue. It typ­i­cal­ly man­i­fests in extrem­i­ties such as fin­gers, toes, and your nose as the tem­per­a­ture of your tis­sue drops and caus­es restrict­ed bloodflow. 

There is noth­ing fun­ny about hypother­mia or frost­bite, and it does­n’t take much expo­sure to cold tem­per­a­tures for your body to show signs.

Here’s a win­ter walk-through for the pre­ven­tion, recog­ni­tion, and treat­ment of both hypother­mia and frostbite:

As is usu­al­ly the case, good pre­ven­tion means good plan­ning. Know before you go what tem­per­a­tures you are deal­ing with, and what clothes you need to pack and wear. See the gear guide below for a basic under­stand­ing of a lay­er­ing sys­tem, and fol­low the rest of these tips:

  • Dress in Lay­ers: let your clothes do the work of keep­ing you warm.
  • Stay Dry: pack back­up clothes for emer­gency sit­u­a­tions in the back­coun­try. Don’t get caught in freez­ing weath­er with wet clothes.
  • Pro­tect from the Ele­ments: water-proof and wind-proof are always good signs in snowy conditions.
  • Eat High Ener­gy Snacks and Drink Water: give your body the fuel that it needs.
  • Move Around: keep the blood cir­cu­lat­ing and keep your­self warm.

Frost­bite can occur to any skin left exposed to cold con­di­tions, or any skin not ade­quate­ly cov­ered in frigid con­di­tions. Most often it’s the hands, feet, and nose and serve as sign to find shel­ter asap. Red­ness, pain, numb­ness, and a gray­ish-yel­low skin tone are all signs of frost­bite, and can lead to the more seri­ous symp­toms of hypothermia:

  • Shiv­er­ing: Mild to begin with, con­vul­sive to end with it.
  • Slurred Speech
  • Loss of Coor­di­na­tion, espe­cial­ly in hands
  • Con­fu­sion or Drowsiness
  • Irri­ta­ble Behavior

And, accord­ing to the CDC, there are groups of peo­ple that are more sus­cep­ti­ble to frost­bite and hypother­mia. So if you fall into one of their four cat­e­gories, make sure to bun­dle up:

  • Elder­ly Peo­ple with Inad­e­quate food, cloth­ing, heating
  • Babies in Cold Rooms
  • Peo­ple who Remain Out­doors for Long Peri­ods of Time: Home­less & Hikers
  • Peo­ple who Drink or Use Illic­it Drugs

For both frost­bite and hypother­mia, seek med­ical atten­tion from a pro­fes­sion­al imme­di­ate­ly. After med­ical atten­tion has been called or con­tact­ed, fol­low these guide­lines for treat­ing frostbite:

  • Get into a warm room or area
  • Avoid using frost­bit­ten toes or fin­gers due to poten­tial nerve damage.
  • Immerse effect­ed appendages in warm (not hot) water.
  • Or, warm through body heat found in your armpits, knee-pits, and crotch.
  • Do not rub or mas­sage the effect­ed area or use heat­ing pad or radi­a­tor to avoid poten­tial nerve damage.

And for Hypothermia:

  • Move vic­tim to shel­ter, gen­tly if unconscious.
  • Remove wet clothes and replace with warm.
  • If con­scious, sup­ply with warm (not hot) beverage.
  • If con­scious and able, get cir­cu­la­tion mov­ing with light exercise.
  • If uncon­scious, wrap in warm sleep­ing bag and insu­late the body.

Lay­er­ing Sys­tem for Cloth­ing
A good way to go while cruis­ing in cold weath­er is a lay­er­ing sys­tem. Start with base-lay­ers made of wool or syn­thet­ics that can take care of sweat and mois­ture, and top it off with a water-resis­tant and wind­proof heavy coat. Check out this basic lay­er­ing sys­tem for chilly win­ter days:

  • Syn­thet­ic or Wool Long Underwear
  • Thick Wool Socks with Option­al Sock Liner
  • Water­proof Boots with Insulation
  • Water Resis­tant Pants, or Insu­lat­ed Snow Pants Depend­ing on the Weather/Activity
  • Wool or Syn­thet­ic Long Sleeve Upper-Body Base Layer
  • 1,2,3, 4…Layers Con­sist­ing of Fleeces, Micro-Puffs, Sweaters, Long Sleeve Cot­ton Tees, Sweat­shirts, or Blous­es (depend­ing on how low the tem­per­a­ture is)
  • Syn­thet­ic, Water­proof, Wind­proof, & Insu­lat­ed Full-Zip Jack­et with Option­al Hood
  • Face Mask, Bal­a­cla­va, or Ban­dana for Windy Days or Frigid Temperatures.
  • Gloves, Mit­tens, and Glove Lin­ers – All Three if it’s Cold Enough.
  • Wool Hat and Some­thing to Cov­er Your Ears
  • Sun­glass­es or Gog­gles if the Con­di­tions are Bright

Sur­viv­ing Under Ice
And for the YouTube view­ers out there, a good video is float­ing around the web-o-sphere of Dr. Gor­don Gies­brecht, A.K.A. Dr. Ice, as he explains and demon­strates prop­er tech­nique for sur­viv­ing once you’ve bro­ken through thin ice. Check it out for yourself:

Resources and Addi­tion­al Infor­ma­tion
Appalachi­an Moun­tain Club: How to Rec­og­nize Hypother­mia
Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion — Hypother­mia
Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion — Frost­bite
Ore­gon Pub­lic Health — Frostbite