The cold blast sweeping the nation is serious business. Depending on the temperature and the wind speed, serious conditions such as frostbite or hypothermia can overtake you in mere minutes. They can even turn deadly.
The best precaution against frostbite and hypothermia is obviously to stay inside. Also make sure animals and loved ones are inside. Many cities actually instruct law enforcement officials to search under bridges, in parks, and other known places where homeless people are typically found, and bring them to shelters.
If you must go outside in freezing weather, cover all of your skin and make sure to wear a hat. Your best bet is a coat that has a wind and waterproof outer shell. Wear layers to trap warm air and insulate your body. Wool and polypropylene work the best, not cotton.
Frostbite is the actual freezing of your skin. Obviously it damages your skin, often permanently. It can affect any part of your body, but your ears, nose, fingers and toes are most at risk. So make sure to take extra precautions to cover those parts of your body thoroughly.
Once I was taking a ski lesson in Colorado on a very cold January day. My instructor actually stopped a passing skier going down the mountain and informed him that he had frostbite! He told the frost-bitten skier to report immediately to the first aid center at the bottom of the mountain.
I was curious how my instructor knew this passing stranger had frostbite. My instructor said frostbite is easy to recognize. People who have it have white, grey, or yellow patches on their skin. It will look waxy and pale. Also, don't be surprised once the person warms up to see blisters on the skin.
People with frostbite must not touch or rub the affected area. Instead, immediately get out of the cold and into a warm area, preferably a place that also offers medical help. If no medical help is available, you'll have to help the victim yourself.
After they are inside, take off any tight clothes or jewelry that might be impairing their circulation.
This next step if tricky:
- Warm the affected areas in WARM water NOT HOT water! The temperature should be between 100 and 105 degrees.
- DO NOT apply a heat source directly to frostbitten skin.
- Immerse the affected area in the warm water for 20 to 45 minutes until the tissue is soft. DO NOT rub or massage the area.
- Put dry, sterile gauze between the fingers and toes to get rid of moisture.
- Elevate the affected area to help reduce swelling and pain.
So that's frostbite.
Hypothermia is a little different.
You can tell by looking at someone that they might be suffering from hypothermia if they exhibit a change in their mental status. They might also be shivering, have dark or puffy skin or have rigid muscles. People suffering from hypothermia might also have an irregular heartbeat or be unconscious.
Just like in the case of frostbite, if you see someone with hypothermia, get them out of the cold immediately and get them medical attention.
If no medical attention is immediately available, treat the victim yourself. First, keep them in a flat position and get them out of their wet clothes and into dry ones. But do this VERY CAREFULLY! Rough handling can cause cardiac arrest!
Cover their body, including their head, with blankets, pillows, towels, even newspapers, whatever is available.
Once an elderly couple I knew told the story of how they once woke up in the middle of the night and discovered the heat had gone out. To their horror, their baby lie in her crib...BLUE from the cold! Wisely, they stripped off their clothes and placed the child in between themselves, skin-to-skin, so that their their combined body heat warmed their infant. Everything turned out fine.
Hopefully you will not need to know these treatments for frostbite and hypothermia, but accidents happen and you never know when this information could save a life.