How to Recognize & Care for Cold Weather Emergencies

By Eric G Braun, Senior Writer, USRW

As we turn the page to another year, it marks the heart of the winter season, although some of you have already done battle with the Goddess of Snow. Those of you in the warm states, stop laughing at the rest of us.

Because of the nature of our industry, we are subjected to the elements as a normal routine in our job. Especially for those who are going for the long haul taking you across the country. Just like being exposed to the heat, your body does not like being exposed to the cold. It has no problem letting you know when enough is enough, and if you don’t listen, the body punishes you.

Frostbite and Hypothermia are the most common and serious winter emergencies.

Frostbite – (Not the Ice Cream), Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.

At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin—frostbite may be beginning. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:

  • a white or grayish-yellow skin area
  • skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
  • numbness

If (1) there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and (2) immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:

  • Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Unless necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes—this increases the damage.
  • Immerse the affected area in warm water.
  • 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.
  • Don’t 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.

Hypothermia -When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. Hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, but it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

Warnings signs of hypothermia:

Adults:

  • shivering, exhaustion
  • confusion, fumbling hands
  • memory loss, slurred speech
  • drowsiness

Infants:

  • bright red, cold skin
  • very low energy

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, as follows:

·       Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.

·       If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it.

·       Warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head, and groin—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 give alcoholic beverages. 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.

·       Get medical attention as soon as possible.

A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately. Even if the victim appears dead, CPR should be provided. CPR should continue while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical aid becomes available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.

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