Recognize Dangerous Warning Signs of Frostbite and Hypothermia

Last week, I provided recommendations on how to dress to stay protected from the bitter elements. In this blog, I identify the dangerous warning signs to watch for when exposed to cold temperatures.

Frostbite and hypothermia are the most common hazards for those working or playing in cold weather conditions. These risks can be dangerous, and even deadly. Knowing the symptoms and how to treat them can keep problems that do occur from becoming a disaster.

Frostbite warning signs include numbness, tingling, stinging or pain in a body part exposed to the cold. The most commonly affected areas are your fingers, toes, ears or nose. In extreme cases, frostbite can cause permanent tissue damage, loss of movement or even amputation of the affected area. Immediate action is needed if the skin becomes bluish, pale or waxy looking. Do not apply pressure to the frostbitten area — doing so may cause further damage. Get to a warm area and request medical assistance.

Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees due to cold air exposure or cold water immersion. How quickly you will be affected depends on time and temperature, but it surprises some to know that hypothermia can occur with air temperatures as mild as 60 degrees.  Shivering is your body’s automatic defense against cold temperature — an attempt to warm itself. Constant shivering is a key sign of hypothermia. Signs and symptoms of moderate to severe hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Stumbling
  • Confusion or difficulty thinking
  • Poor decision making, such as trying to remove warm clothes
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Apathy or lack of concern about one’s condition
  • Progressive loss of consciousness
  • Weak pulse
  • Slow, shallow breathing

A person with hypothermia usually isn’t aware of their condition because the symptoms often begin gradually and confusion associated with hypothermia prevents self-awareness. When working in cold weather, it is a good idea to work in pairs so workers can check on each other. Stay alert as to how your co-worker is talking and acting, and if you have any doubts get inside to warm up.

First aid requires moving to a warm area and requesting medical assistance. While waiting for medical assistance handle the person gently, limit movements and do not rub or massage the person. Remove any wet clothing and attempt to warm the trunk of the body first with layers of dry blankets. Monitor their breathing; a person with severe hypothermia may appear unconscious with no apparent signs of a pulse or breathing. If the person’s breathing has stopped or appears dangerously low or shallow, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately if you’re trained. DO NOT provide warm beverages unless the person is alert and able to swallow and then they should be non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated.

Have you experienced these warning signs in yourself, a family member, friend, or co-worker? Use this checklist to keep safe in cold temperatures.

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