Survival: Protecting Yourself in Extreme Cold Weather

By Martin Brown

frostbiteExtreme cold weather and snowstorms are a reminder that winter, in most parts of our world, is still with us.

Last summer we did a piece on the dangers of excessive heat. A cold snap is a reminder to discuss the opposite concern, extreme cold weather and what to do if you get frostbite.

We have all heard the term frostbite, but what does it mean and how can we deliver effective first aid to ourselves or someone else should they become a frostbite victim?

Let’s start with a brief explanation:

While frostbite might occur at a time as hypothermia, the two are distinctly separate health issues. Both are related to exposure to cold and both can be potentially life threatening, but they are distinctly different issues.

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature cannot keep pace with the rate at which it is losing heat. While it is not a common cause of death, it is still important to note that each year nearly 700 people in the United States die of hypothermia. Prolonged exposure to cold air or cold water temperatures are the common causes for these deaths.

Frostbite, on the other hand, occurs when our skin, and its underlying tissues actually freeze. The victim may be warmly dressed but some portion of the body is either unprotected, the face or hands being common to this occurrence, or inadequately protected from the effects of extreme cold, the feet in this case being the prime target for frostbite. Additionally, frostbite nearly always occurs in parts of the body furthest from the heart. Fingers, and toes; because of exposure, parts of the face, particularly the ears, and the nose are also common spots to suffer frostbite.

The surest way to identify frostbite is by the sight of hard, pale and cold quality to skin that has been exposed or under-protected. As the effected area thaws, flesh becomes red and painful.

Here are five important steps to take if you are exposed to the elements and find yourself a victim of frostbite:

1. Get out of the cold.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well it is–especially if you’re too numb to be out there anyway.

2. Warm your hands by putting them under your arms. If your nose, ears or face is frostbitten, warm the area by covering it with dry, gloved hands.

3. Don’t ever rub the affected area. Whatever you do remember to never rub snow on frostbitten skin.

4. If there is ever any chance of affected tissue areas refreezing, don’t thaw them out. If they’re already thawed out, wrap them up so they don’t refreeze.

5. Get emergency medical help if numbness remains during warming. If you can’t get help immediately, warm frostbitten hands or feet in warm, but not water.

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