Hypothermia, frostbite, chilblains – how to survive cold weather
During the winter months it is important to protect yourself from the dangers of cold weather. The elderly, frail and very young are at most risk, however, anyone can suffer from hypothermia and it can be very serious. Alcohol makes people more susceptible to hypothermia as it affects their ability to regulate their own body temperature, therefore particular care should be taken during the winter party season.
Hypothermia is defined as the point at which the core body temperature falls below 35°C.
Small children and babies are particularly at risk as their temperature control area in the brain is not always fully developed. Elderly people are also more likely to suffer from hypothermia. If they are out in cold conditions with insufficient warm clothing they can quickly develop mild hypothermia.
Cold water and wet clothing brings body temperature down very fast and people with high levels of alcohol or drugs in their system find it harder to maintain their body temperature. Therefore if someone has collapsed outside a pub during the festive season, hypothermia is a very real threat.
Signs and symptoms
- Pale, quiet and cold to touch.
- They may be shivery and then stiff with cold.
- As hypothermia develops further, they become confused, disorientated and may lose consciousness – severe hypothermia kills.
- Remove cold, wet clothing.
- Put on warm dry clothing.
- Cover their head as well.
- Wrap them up in coats and blankets, increase the room temperature if possible as well.
- If you are unable to get indoors, wrap them in a foil blanket and use a survival bag and shelter if possible.
- Give them warm (non-alcoholic) drinks.
- Always seek medical advice. If their condition deteriorates phone the emergency services.
If they lose consciousness and are breathing put them in the recovery position.
If they stop breathing do CPR.
NOTE: if they are very cold, keep them still as the extreme cold can affect their heart and any swift movement could cause a cardiac arrest.
Do not use hot water bottles or put the person in a bath to warm them. This can warm them too quickly and cause burns.
For people who have been playing sport and are injured, it is really important that they are kept warm. They should sit on something to insulate themselves from the ground and it may be sensible to wrap them in a reflective blanket to retain their body heat and avoid them getting cold.
Frostbite happens when an extremity (such as a finger, toe or ear) gets so cold that ice crystals form in the cells and destroy them.
The casualty may develop pins and needles, tingling and then numbness in the affected area.
The skin becomes hard and changes first to white, then blue and finally turns black as the cells die.
As the area is warmed it can become hot, red and very painful.
Carefully remove jewellery if possible – they may need to be cut off.
Do not rub the injury as this will make things worse. To stop the freezing getting worse, cup the affected area in your hands. Do not start to warm them if there is a danger of the area re-freezing. Move them indoors and start to warm them slowly by placing the affected area in warm water. Refer for medical help as soon as possible.
Chilblains: happen as a result of dry cold. The cells do not freeze but the extremities become itchy, bluish-red in colour and swollen. If it is not treated the casualty may develop blisters. Treatment is the same as for frostbite.
Trench foot: caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. The cells do not freeze but the signs and symptoms are similar to frostbite.
It is strongly advised that you complete an Online or attend a Practical First Aid course to understand what to do in a medical emergency. Please visit firstaidforlife.org.uk or call 0208 675 4036 for more information about our courses.
First Aid for life provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for medical advice. First Aid for Life is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made, or actions taken based on this information.