There’s nothing quite as thrilling as watching a film about mountaineers braving freezing conditions and risking life and limb to accomplish some incredible feat. But, when it comes to actually facing temperatures that can cause frostbite and hypothermia, the reality of the potential consequences are a lot less glamorous than the movies make it seem.
While people of all ages should be cognizant of potential dangers of going out during freezing weather, the young and the elderly are especially prone to getting frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite and hypothermia are conditions that can occur when a person is exposed to cold temperatures. Frostbite most frequently affects the extremities of the body (i.e. fingers, toes, nose and ears) and can result in varying degrees of damage to body tissue. Cases of severe frostbite can lead to dead tissue and gangrene.
Danielle Pettit-Majewski, the public health director for Washington County, explained that most people are often unaware of when they get frostbite and only notice when it is pointed out to them, which makes it all the more dangerous.
“How often do you think about the tips of your ears?” Pettit-Majewski said, explaining how frostbite can go unnoticed.
The condition generally begins with parts of the body first getting cold and numb and a person experiencing clumsiness with affected areas. The skin may appear bright red in the initial stages. As it progresses, a person will begin to lose sensation.
“Your skin can turn a white or grayish color — those are the beginning signs of frostbite. Your skin will start to feel hard and waxy,” Dr. Sarah Ledger from Family Medicine of Mt. Pleasant said. Blisters can also develop in the affected areas.
Dr. David Nacos, who works at Washington Health Center’s Family Practice Clinic, noted that the clinic sees cases of frostbite every year. Gwen Richardson, the emergency department manager at Henry County Health Center also said the emergency room sees a couple cases every winter.
Nacos said the best thing for people to do is to seek help from a medical professional if a person’s extremities do not return to normal within 15 to 20 minutes after getting to a warm place.
“So many times, by the time people come in, they’re already facing the consequences. If you get frostbite, go to the emergency room, so they can quickly assess and treat it to avoid having ongoing issues,” Nacos said.
Should a person experience frostbite and are unable to get immediate medical attention, any wet clothing should be removed immediately and affected areas should be warmed up gradually, which can be done through running frostbitten areas under warm water or with body heat. Because a person has lost feeling in frostbitten places, they should avoid hot things that may cause burns, including hot water or heaters.
“When it comes to rewarming, you don’t want to do it too fast … you’ve lost sensation to that area so you can’t if you’re getting burned. You don’t want to thaw them out too quickly either, you want to slowly rewarm,” Ledger explained.
Nacos and Ledger also warned against rubbing frostbitten areas in attempts to warm the skin or continued use of affected areas, such as walking on frostbitten toes. Both actions can cause further tissue damage.
As soon as the temperature dips below the freezing point, the body can become susceptible to injury due to the cold. However, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hypothermia can occur even at cool temperatures (40 degrees Fahrenheit) if a person “becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.”
While frostbite deals mostly with the further-reaching parts of the body, hypothermia occurs when the body is unable to keep a core temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Initial signs of hypothermia include increased heart rate, shaking, hyperventilation and impaired judgment.
“Their body goes into this hibernation mode where they slow down, their thinking and their movements,” Ledger said.
“If you start to feel like you’re getting confused or your brain is starting to get kind of cloudy, that’s a sign you need to get out of the cold,” she continued.
When a person begins to enter moderate and severe hypothermia, the body pulls its resources to conserve the vital organs and a person’s pulse will begin to slow as will a person’s breathing. In its worst stage, a body’s lungs will fill with fluid and enters a comatose state before the heart stops. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and if a person is exhibiting signs of the condition, they should be taken out of the cold and seek emergency care. Often emergency medical procedures to treat hypothermia depend on the severity of the case, but most commonly include a warm bath or a warmed IV drip to help raise body temperature.
While both frostbite and hypothermia are incredibly serious conditions, a few key practices can help prevent them from occurring. Dressing properly for the weather and being aware of the forecast is at the top of the list for prevention techniques.
Shelley Van Dorin, the public health director for Henry County, advises people put on multiple layers that are thin and will not absorb sweat. Wet clothing can expedite the rate at which a person’s temperature drops. People are also advised to invest in windproof and rainproof outerwear. Proper clothing also includes remembering to put on scarves, mittens and hats to protect extremities and conserve heat.
Perhaps the most common cases in which people are at risk of hypothermia or frostbite are in unexpected vehicle accidents. For those instances, winter preparedness, such as having an emergency kit and an extra change of clothing, are important for frequent winter commuters.
“The number one thing they find is that people aren’t prepared when they get into a car accident. That could happen, you need winter clothes. Try to keep at least half a tank of gas in their car, if your car will run [in an accident], you want your heat on,” Ledger said. The doctor also explained that staying out of the wind is important to keep warm and to stay in a car, even if the heat cannot run. Other handy tools to have include a small shovel to move snow if stuck in a snowbank to ensure a car’s tailpipe is not blocked by snow as well as hand and feet warming pads.
“If it’s that cold, you really just should try not to go out unless absolutely necessary … if you do have to go out, let someone know where you’re going and make sure to keep your cellphone charged, in case you need to call for help,” Ledger added.