5 FAQs About Hypothermia and Frostbite

The following tips from the National Safety Council can make it easier for you to keep your family safe.

How Can I Prevent Frostbite?

Exposure to cold without adequate protection can result in frostbite. Parents can protect their children by following these precautions:

  1. Dress children warmly. Several thin layers will help keep children dry as well as warm. Clothing should consist of:
    • Thermal long johns
    • Turtlenecks
    • One or two shirts
    • Pants
    • Sweater
    • Coat
    • Warm socks
    • Boots
    • Gloves or mittens
    • Hat
  2. Set reasonable time limits on outdoor play. Call children in periodically to warm up with drinks such as hot chocolate.
  3. When possible, avoid taking infants outdoors when it is colder than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Infants lose body heat quickly.
  4. If you do suspect frostbite, contact a medical professional immediately for treatment.

What Are the Warning Signs?

Signs of cold weather exposure

  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Vague, slow, slurred speech
  • Memory lapses
  • Incoherence, immobile, fumbling hands, frequent stumbling
  • Drowsiness, apparent exhaustion
  • Inability to get up after a rest

Signs of frostbite

Frostbite is a severe reaction to cold exposure that can cause permanent harm to people. The extent of frostbite is difficult to judge until hours after thawing.

There are two classifications of frostbite:

  • Superficial frostbite is characterized by white, waxy or grayish-yellow patches on the affected areas. The skin feels cold and numb. The skin surface feels stiff and underlying tissue feels soft when depressed.
  • Deep frostbite is characterized by waxy and pale skin. The affected parts feel cold, hard, and solid and cannot be depressed. Large blisters may appear after rewarming.

Signs of hypothermia

Hypothermia is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops to less than 95°F. Hypothermia is not always fatal, but for those who survive there are likely to be lasting kidney, liver, and pancreas problems.

Symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Slow speech
  • Memory lapses
  • Frequent stumbling
  • Drowsiness
  • Exhaustion

How Do I Treat Frostbite?

  1. Get the victim out of the cold and to a warm place immediately.
  2. Remove any constrictive clothing items that could impair circulation.
  3. If you notice signs of frostbite, seek medical attention immediately.
  4. Place dry, sterile gauze between toes and fingers to absorb moisture and to keep them from sticking together.
  5. Slightly elevate the affected part to reduce pain and swelling.
  6. If you are more than one hour from a medical facility and you have warm water, place the frostbitten part in the water (102 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit). If you do not have a thermometer, test the water first to see if it is warm, not hot. Rewarming usually takes 20 to 40 minutes or until tissues soften.

What Should I Not Do?

  1. Do not use water hotter than 106 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Do not use water colder than 100 degrees Fahrenheit since it will not thaw frostbite quickly enough.
  3. Do not rub or massage the frostbitten area.
  4. Do not rub with ice or snow.

How Do I Treat Hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses more heat than it produces. Symptoms include a change in mental status, uncontrollable shivering, cool abdomen and a low core body temperature. Severe hypothermia may cause rigid muscles, dark and puffy skin, irregular heartbeat and respiration, and unconsciousness.

Treat hypothermia by protecting the victim from further heat loss and seeking immediate medical attention.

  1. Get the victim out of the cold. Add insulation such as blankets, pillows, towels or newspapers beneath and around the victim. Be sure to cover the victim’s head.
  2. Replace wet clothing with dry clothing. Handle the victim gently because rough handling can cause cardiac arrest.
  3. Keep the victim in a horizontal (flat) position. Keep the head low and the feet up to get warm blood circulating to the head.
  4. Tell the person to wiggle the affected body part(s) to increase blood supply to that area.
  5. Keep the person quiet. Do not jostle, massage or rub.
  6. Give the person warm drinks.

WHN TIP – Hypothermia Victim: Never give a frostbite or hypothermia victim alcohol or something with caffeine in it, like coffee or tea. Caffeine, a stimulant, can cause the heart to beat faster and hasten the effect the cold has on the body. Alcohol, a depressant, can slow the heart and also hasten the ill effects of the cold.

For More Information

Hypothermia and Frostbite — The National Safety Council is a nonprofit, non-governmental, international public service organization dedicated to protecting life and promoting health.

CDC’s advice on Cold-Weather Health Conditions — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a component of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS is the principal agency in the United States government for protecting the health and safety of all Americans and for providing essential human services.

National Weather Service Winter Weather Safety and Awareness  — The National Weather Service (NWS) provides weather, hydrologic, and climate forecasts and warnings for the United States, its territories, adjacent waters and ocean areas.