Northwest Colorado experts provide tips to avoid hypothermia, frostbite
December 17, 2016
Craig — It's cold outside, and cold, wet weather brings the risk of hypothermia and frostbite.
"Cold weather can affect your body in different ways. You can get frostbite, which is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Your body can also lose heat faster than you can produce it, that can cause hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
There are clear signs that hypothermia is taking hold.
"Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include exposure to cold with shivering, dizziness, nausea, rapid breathing, trouble speaking, confusion, lack of coordination, fatigue or drowsiness and rapid heart rate," said Dr. Cynthia Reed, emergency room physician for The Memorial Hospital at Craig.
Frostbite is a partial or complete freezing of the extremities — fingers, feet and toes.
"Those parts of our bodies furthest away from the heart and lungs. In the initial stages, the first level is called frost nip and it's more of a partial freezing. If it gets more severe it gets to frostbite — complete freezing of the extremities," said Jim Johnsen, a regional staff member for Northwest Colorado Emergency Preparedness and Response with Northwest Colorado Health.
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Frostbite results in tingling, discoloration of the tissue in those areas — the skin might look pale gray, white or blue as circulation declines, Johnsen said.
"As one’s temperature continues to decline, you may also note apathy (meaning lack of concern about your condition), weak pulse, and slow or shallow breathing. Infants with hypothermia will usually be cool or cold to touch, have bright red skin, appear to have little energy and have a weak cry," Reed said.
The very young and very old are most vulnerable to hypothermia, but anyone exposed to freezing temperatures can be at risk from frostbite.
Also at high risk of hypothermia are people with "hypothyroidism, malnourishment, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, extensive burns, neuromuscular disorders such as neuropathy from diabetes, and dehydration… people with mental problems and drug and/or alcohol use," Dr. Reed said. "The human body usually maintains a normal temperature on its own, but each of these states alters the body’s ability to maintain a constant and normal temperature possibly leading to hypothermia."
There are some simple steps to avoid both hypothermia and frostbite.
"People should be dressed appropriately for the weather (hats, scarves, coats and gloves in the winter), limit and/or avoid prolonged exposure to the cold, remove wet/damp clothing immediately, and find a dry and warm environment to stay in after cold exposure," Reed said. "Parents should also be aware that infants and young children lose a significant amount of their body heat from their heads. This means that little ones should wear hats or beanies to prevent excessive heat loss when outside in the winter."
Anyone who might be in the cold for long periods of time should plan ahead.
"If you are going to be on a trip in the back county, have a plan, stick to the plan and tell other people, where and when you are expected back. Search and rescue groups rely on this information when people get lost," Johnsen said. "Always go with the idea that you might have to spend the night."
If the worst happens and frost is nipping at your nose, Johnsen said, "the length and degree of exposure makes the difference between saving the limb and amputation. Gradual warming of the extremities is important. This means it might be necessary to keep the limb frozen to avoid freeze thaw that leads to more severe damage and infection by gangrene."
Know the risks before you go.
"Have fun, enjoy the back country, but go prepared," Johnsen said.