Cold related injuries can occur quickly and without as many warning signals as heat-related injuries. And cold related injuries don’t always occur when the air temperature is below freezing. Hypothermia, for example, can occur at temperatures well above freezing.
The two most common and serious cold related injuries are frostbite and hypothermia. Below are their symptoms, treatments, and ways to avoid their occurrence:
Frostbite is most common in the extremities and areas of exposed skin (fingers, toes, face, hands, feet). Frostbite occurs when the these areas of the body are exposed to the cold and start to freeze. The symptoms will include loss of feeling, will be cold to the touch, and may appear waxy and discolored (flushed, yellow, white, or blue). If treating an area of frostbite, be very careful not to run or otherwise apply any friction to the area. This abrasion can cause further trauma to the soft tissues. Apply warm (not hot) water to the affected area. Water temperature should not be hotter than 105 degrees F, or warm to the touch. Keep the frostbitten area immersed in the water until it appears red and feels warm to the touch. Bandage the area with dry sterile dressings. For frostbitten toes, place gauze between the toes and gently wrap area. Get professional medical attention as soon as possible. Frostbite can lead to loss of fingers, toes, hands, feet, arms, and even legs. It’s worth taking the necessary precautions to avoid this danger. Limit exposure to the cold. Wear the proper layers and gear to protect yourself from the environment. And know the proper survival skills in the event of an emergency.
Hypothermia is when the body can no longer maintain its own warmth. If left untreated, a victim of hypothermia will die. The signals of hypothermia include shivering, numbness, glassy stare, apathy, and a loss of consciousness.
The danger of hypothermia is not just limited to the artic tundra. A cool day hiking, a windy Fall campout, or even a poorly heated home can lead to the conditions of hypothermia. Spending an extended period of time in wet clothing on a cool day can lead to hypothermia.
For a hypothermia victim, remove wet clothing and warm them with dry clothing or blankets. If a heat source is available, such as a heat pack, use that to warm the victim. If the victim is conscious and alert, give them some warm fluids to drink. Do not try to warm the victim up too quickly as this can cause stress on their heart and put them in further danger.
In severe cases of hypothermia, the victim’s pulse may be irregular and the breathing may have slowed or even stopped. Be prepared to start CPR while continuing to warm them before medical professionals arrive.
Cold related injuries are largely avoidable and preventable. Research the environment and weather trends for your camping or wilderness outing. Come prepared with the right camping gear and limit your exposure times to prevent these injuries from happening.