Now that single-digit temps have found their way to Michigan, it’s important to stay safe and be aware of how dangerous extremely cold weather can be. If you're not careful, it can cause frostbite and hypothermia.
"The key to avoiding cold weather injuries is prevention — mainly by dressing appropriately," says Jennifer Stephens-Hoyer, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. "This includes layering your clothing. Your first layer should pull moisture away from your skin, your middle layer should add insulation and your outer layer should keep out the elements. Hats are a must because the head is where 30% of the body’s heat loss takes place. Gloves and face protection also are necessary in extremely cold weather."
Here, Dr. Stephens-Hoyer answers important questions about frostbite and hypothermia.
Q: What is frostbite?
A: Exposure to dry, cold temperatures below freezing can cause frostbite. Frostbite can result in permanent damage and tissue loss. The most susceptible body parts are fingers, toes, cheeks, ear lobes and the tip of the nose because they are located at the most distant points of the circulatory system. A precursor to frostbite is frostnip, in which the skin is numb, white and firm to the touch.
Q: What are risk factors for frostbite?
A: Inadequate or poorly fitted clothing, exposure to wind, dampness, contact with cold objects, dehydration, shock and trauma, hardening of the arteries, smoking, a history of frostbite, fatigue and substance abuse disorder are risk factors for frostbite.
Q: What are the symptoms of frostbite?
A: Early symptoms of frostbite include tingling, numbness and pain in the affected area. The skin turns white or gray and is cold and hard to the touch. There is no feeling in the affected area. The skin may blacken and form a tough layer that eventually disappears, revealing new skin that will always be more susceptible to frostbite. Deep frostbite can involve underlying tissue, muscle, tendon and bone.
Q: How do I treat frostbite?
A: Seek medical attention immediately. If care or transportation to the medical site is delayed, rewarm the affected area in warm bath water. If a thermometer is not available, the water should feel comfortably warm to unaffected parts. Give the person warm, non-alcoholic fluids. Rewarming at the location should be avoided if medical care is available within 2 hours.
During rewarming, the affected area will become extremely painful, red and blotchy, indicating the return of adequate circulation. Wash the area thoroughly with soap and water. When color returns, wrap it in sterile gauze or a clean cloth, separating the fingers and toes. To decrease swelling and pain, elevate the frostbitten area after rewarming.
Q: What is hypothermia?
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This happens through exposure to cool and/or damp conditions. Cardiac arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat, can also occur when the core body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The elderly, immobile and psychiatric patients are most at risk. Often times, hypothermia affects elderly people who live in poorly heated homes.
Q: What are the symptoms of hypothermia?
A: Symptoms of hypothermia include slurred speech, decreased coordination, uncontrollable shivering, cold and pale skin, blue lips and nails, stiffening of the neck and limbs, memory lapses, stumbling, abnormally slow breathing and a slow, irregular heartbeat. The condition becomes grave when the shivering stops, muscles stiffen and the skin turns bluish.
Q: How do I treat hypothermia?
A: Seek medical attention immediately. For mild hypothermia, give the person warm, non-alcoholic fluids and cover their head. When hypothermia is more severe, treatment varies based upon age. A young person can be warmed in a hot bath (about 107 degrees Fahrenheit). However, this can be fatal for elderly people. Warming should be gradual with the elderly, at about one degree per hour. Make sure clothing is dry and wrap the person in blankets. Those with hypothermia generally have a good prognosis unless they go into cardiac arrest or complications arise from an associated illness.
Henry Ford Health has several ER locations across southeast and south central Michigan. Learn more about how to get care when and where you need it.
Jennifer Stephens-Hoyer, M.D., is an emergency medicine physician at Henry Ford Medical Center — Plymouth.