Despite today’s relatively mild weather, the mercury is expected to plummet Monday night into Tuesday and along with that comes increased risk of hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance. Elderly people are more susceptible than others to both these conditions.
Rockland County Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert advises residents to avoid exposure to extremely cold conditions which can lead to hypothermia and frostbite.
Ruppert says hypothermia is a life–threatening condition that causes the body to begin to lose heat faster than it produces heat. Possible symptoms of hypothermia in adults include shivering, confusion, memory loss, drowsiness, exhaustion and slurred speech. Infants who are suffering from hypothermia may appear to have very low energy and bright red, cold skin.
Hypothermia is particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening. If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95°, the situation is an emergency. Get medical attention immediately.
If medical care is not available, begin warming the person:
- Get the person into a warm room or shelter as soon as possible
- Remove any wet clothing,
- Warm the center of the body first: chest, neck, head, and groin areas using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
- Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do not alcoholic beverages, which cause the body to lose heat more quickly. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
- After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
Ruppert says frostbite occurs when parts of the body freeze after being exposed to extreme cold. It most commonly affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. Signs of frostbite include a loss of feeling in affected areas, white or grayish-yellow skin, and skin that feels unusually firm, waxy, or numb.
Frostbite often happens with little warning. At the first signs of pain or numbness of any skin area, get out of the cold or cover unprotected skin. Numbness can occur so quickly that the individual may be unaware of what is happening and remain outside, increasing the chance of permanent damage. Older persons, and those with diabetes, are especially vulnerable to frostbite because of poor circulation.
If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure, first determine whether the victim also shows signs of hypothermia. If immediate medical care is not available and there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia, take the following steps.
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes because this increases the damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm not hot water. The temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body.
- Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
A health care provider should check cases of frostbite.
To prevent frostbite and hypothermia, dress warmly in windproof clothing. Wear several layers of loose-fitting clothing to trap body heat. Fasten buttons or zippers and tighten drawstrings securely. Put on gloves, mittens and a hat that covers the ears and warm boots or shoes. Seek shelter when you begin to feel cold. Remember shivering is one of the first signs that the body is losing heat.
Those with cardiac problems or high blood pressure should be extra cautious because cold weather puts an extra burden on the heart. Follow doctor’s orders about shoveling or performing any strenuous exercise outside. Healthy adults should remember their bodies already are working hard to stay warm and take their time when doing heavy outdoor chores.