Preventing Frostbite and Hypothermia

Wintery winds blowing in tell us it’s time to break out the hot chocolate and cozy sweaters. But for the days you can’t avoid going outside, knowing how to prevent hypothermia and frostbite during frigid weather is key to keeping all your fingers and toes in their preferred place.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia happens when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees F (35 degrees C) and is generally caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures.

According to the CDC, your body temperature affects the brain. If a person’s body temperature is too low, it impedes their ability to move and think — which is why many victims of hypothermia are not even aware of what’s happening before it’s too late.

What are hypothermia symptoms?

According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech
  • Shallow and slow breathing
  • Week pulse
  • Disorientation
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness

It’s important to note that in babies, hypothermia may also present as bright red, cold skin.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is a type of injury caused by freezing. While it may go hand in hand with hypothermia, frostbite can occur even during brief exposures to cold temperatures such as low windchill.

Frostbite causes extremities — nose, ears, cheeks, chins, fingers, toes — to go numb and lose color as blood vessels contract. As the blood flow decreases, these extremities lose oxygen, causing blood vessels, muscles, nerves, tendons, and muscles to be permanently damaged or even die, requiring amputation.

What are frostbite symptoms?

While the symptoms of frostbite may include those of hypothermia, the symptoms are usually localized on people’s extremities. Frostbite has three stages according to Mayo Clinic.

  1. Frostnip. Frostnip occurs before frostbite. While there is no permanent damage, it can cause the affected area to feel irritated and cold and look raw and red.
  2. Superficial frostbite. This is when the more serious symptoms occur, such as skin losing color and texture or itchy, red patches or swelling and blistering (called chilblains) appearing. The skin may even begin to feel warm despite the weather.
  3. Deep frostbite. Deep frostbite is when the damage deepens to the subcutaneous tissue. Joints or muscles may no longer work, the victim may lose all feeling in the area, and the tissue may turn black and hard as the tissue dies. Deep frostbite always requires medical attention and usually amputation.

How can I prevent hypothermia and frostbite?

The best way to prevent hypothermia is to stay inside and crank up the heat during frigid weather. However, when that isn’t possible, consider these tips:

  • Wear hats, gloves, scarves, and face masks when going outside.
  • Dress in layers. The first layer should be clothing that wicks away sweat from the skin, such as polyester. The middle layers should help insulate and keep heat in, such as fleece and wool. And lastly, wear coats with waterproof exteriors, preferably breathable.
  • Use hand and feet warmers.
  • Wear socks and boots that keep your feet dry.
  • Use extra blankets at night.
  • Keep an emergency first-aid kit on hand in your car.
  • Use the buddy system when going out.
  • Make sure to eat plenty of food and drink fluids to keep your energy up.

How do I treat hypothermia and frostbite?

If you or someone is experiencing hypothermia and/or frostbite, seek medical attention immediately. In the meantime, these steps may help mitigate the effects:

  • Move the person into a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • Monitor breathing and circulation.
  • Begin gently rewarming them. Rewarm frostbitten areas with warm water, about 105 to 110 degrees F (40-43 degrees C). Soak 20 to 30 minutes until the area begins to feel again or returns to its normal color. For areas such as the ear or face, use a warm, wet washcloth.
  • Do not rewarm frostbitten skin with direct heat such as stove, heat lamps, fireplaces, or heating pads. This can cause burns and further damage.
  • Bandage the affected area but avoid breaking any blisters.
  • Do not allow the affected area to refreeze.
  • If the person is awake, give them warm drinks but avoid caffeine or alcohol.
  • If the person loses consciousness or stops breathing, administer CPR while you wait for help.

For more information

Have more questions about hypothermia and frostbite? Check out the CDC’s site to learn more. And if you're looking for some extra security this winter, try contacting one of our agents for a quote.

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The information included in this publication was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company and its employees make no guarantee of results and assume no liability in connection with any training, materials, suggestions or information provided. It is the user’s responsibility to confirm compliance with any applicable local, state or federal regulations. Information obtained from or via Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company should not be used as the basis for legal advice or other advice.