Dealing with Cold Emergencies
The one thing that living in Iowa guarantees is cold weather. Preparation is key when it comes to preventing medical emergencies caused by the cold. The Marion Fire Department offers these suggestions to prevent a cold emergency from happening to you or someone you care about.
- Cover all parts of your body especially your head, neck, and hands. Mittens are actually better than gloves because your fingers are together and they stay warmer. If the actual temperature is zero and the wind chill is -20, exposed skin can get frostbite in 30 minutes or less. Colder temperatures and wind chills mean frostbite happens even faster!
- Try not to overexert yourself when exposed to the cold. Overexertion causes you to sweat and when the sweat is exposed to cold air; it brings your body temperature down.
- Dress in layers so you can add or remove layers depending on how cold it is. Outer layers of clothing made of tightly woven water-repellent material are best to protect against the wind.Wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers hold body heat better than cotton does.
- Stay as dry as possible. Get out of wet clothing as soon as possible because wet clothes will rapidly drop your body temperature. This is especially true for hands and feet.
- Dress infants and children in one more layer of clothing than you would for an adult.
Hypothermia is the medical term for when the body is losing heat faster than it can produce heat. Medically it is defined as a body temperature under 95 degrees F. Signs and symptoms of mild hypothermia can include shivering, dizziness, hunger, rapid breathing, nausea, confusion, trouble speaking, lack of coordination, fatigue and an increased heart rate. Shivering is almost always the first warning sign of hypothermia.
Moderate to severe hypothermia will present with clumsiness or lack of coordination, slurred speech, confusion, drowsiness, progressive loss of consciousness, a weak pulse, and slow shallow breathing. As people fall deeper into hypothermia, they often do not realize that they are in real trouble. As the body gets colder, a person’s decision-making abilities become impaired. Sometimes people are so confused that they take their clothes off even in freezing temperatures.
Frostbite is defined as the freezing of a body part and the most common areas are the hands, feet, ears, and nose. Your skin layer contains a lot of water and when exposed to cold temperatures is prone to freezing. Signs of frostbite include lack of feeling in the affected area and skin that appears waxy and feels cold to the touch. The skin can also appear flushed, white, grey, yellow, or even blue depending on the severity of the frostbite.
The best way to treat a cold emergency is to prevent it from happening, but let’s talk about what to do if you find someone who is suffering from hypothermia. The most important thing is to remove them from the cold environment. Get them into a warm place, but move them gently because severe hypothermia and rough movements can cause the heart to stop. Remove any wet clothing and get them into warm clothing. You want to rewarm the person gradually. One of the best ways is to put hot packs or some other warm object near the core of the body like in the armpits and the groin. Take care not burn them. Someone who is experiencing hypothermia needs medical treatment so 911 should be called.
Treating frostbite is done by first removing the victim from the cold environment. You never want to rub the frostbite area because you will damage the frozen tissue and it is extremely painful. Allow the area to rewarm and if it is an isolated area like the fingers, you can soak the area in warm water (99-108 degrees F). As the area rewarms, the skin should become more of a red color. They may feel tingling and burning but that is actually a good sign because blood flow is returning to the area. Frostbite injuries should also be evaluated by a physician.