January 16, 2006
Frostbite is an injury to body tissue caused by exposure to extreme cold. The nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes are the most commonly affected by frostbite. Frostbite is a serious condition that can cause permanent damage and in the most severe cases can lead to amputation.
Recognizing the warning signs of frostbite can help avoid permanent damage. Common signs of frostbite include pain, burning or “pins and needles” feeling as well as a hardened feeling of the skin beneath the surface in the affected areas. Skin discolouration from a grey, blue or waxy white to a waxy yellow appearance is symptomatic of severe frostbite. If any of these symptoms are evident, the affected person should be removed from the cold immediately. Use body heat or warm water to gently bring the body temperature to its best functioning temperature of 37 degrees C (98.6 degrees F). Water temperature should be monitored by a non-affected adult as numb hands will not feel the scalding water and severe burning can occur. Similarly, do not use heating pads or electric blankets because they can burn the affected areas if they are numb to touch. Rubbing and massaging frostbitten areas is not a recommended re-warming method because it can lead to permanent tissue damage. If water is not available blow hot breath on the affected area or hold it tight against the body. For example, place fingers in the armpits or between the thighs. Re-warming of the affected area should continue until the skin returns to a normal colour. In severe cases of frostbite, call 911 and watch for signs of hypothermia.
Hypothermia or low body temperature is the result of exposure to cold conditions. It can also occur in moderate temperatures if the person loses heat due to exposure or submersion in water. When you begin to lose heat faster than your body can produce this affects your entire body, including your brain and your ability to think and react quickly. Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, slurred speech and drowsiness. If you think someone is suffering from hypothermia, call 911 immediately. Other things that help are moving the affected person to a warmer area, removing any wet clothing and beginning gentle body re-warming. Gentle body re-warming should be done by using warm dry blankets and clothing and skin-to-skin contact.
In addition to recognizing the signs and symptoms of cold weather emergencies, there are a variety of precautions that can be taken to reduce the effects of cold weather on the body. To begin, dress yourself and your children appropriately for the weather conditions. Wear layers, windproof and waterproof clothing. When layering clothing for insulation, begin with cotton apparel closest to the skin, as cotton absorbs moisture and keeps the body drier. The last inside layer should contain wool material as it retains body heat.
Since 40 percent of body heat is lost through the neck and head, be sure they are properly covered. Face, ears, hand and feet also need to be protected. Shivering is a sign that the body is losing heat and should not be ignored. Finally, limit the body’s exposure to extreme cold weather.
For more information on cold weather emergencies or other EMS-related questions, contact York Region Health Services Health Connection at 1-800-361-5653 or visit www.york.ca.
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