In the wake of the recent death by hypothermia of a 31-year-old Australian soldier visiting the Adirondacks, apparently a suicide, I’ve received a number of inquiries about just what hypothermia is and about the dangers and symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite. Most were from concerned parents.
My initial response is to tell them that very few northern New Yorkers believe that cold weather is a reason to stay indoors. And for North Country kids, winter is fun. It’s the season of snowmen, snowballs, snow forts, snow sculptures, sledding, tobogganing, tubing and ice skating. There’s also snowmobiling, snowshoeing, snowboarding, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, dog sledding, ice fishing, ice climbing, winter hiking, winter camping and winter-carnival parades.
We’re not strangers to the cold. Many of us work outdoors or have friends or neighbors who work outdoors during the winter on construction or logging crews or as farmers, truckers, police and firefighters. Others may travel considerable distances to work. All these situations leave people vulnerable.
The danger of cold-related injuries is compounded if you have poor circulation, if you are tired or if you’ve been drinking. Age, physical condition, smoking and the use of certain medications are also factors.
To understand cold injuries, we must first recognize that the body’s ability to generate heat and prevent heat loss is limited. Core temperature (97.7 to 99.5 F) is maintained by the hypothalamus in the brain, which makes physiological adjustments in response to temperature receptors in the body’s shell. Cold injury occurs when the body’s ability to thermo-regulate becomes compromised.
Essentially, hypothermia is injury to the body’s core, frostbite to the shell. They often occur together.
Hypothermia occurs when the body is losing heat faster than it can generate it. Shivering is often the first sign. Slow or slurred speech, lethargy and drowsiness may follow. As condition worsens, victims will often become disorientated or incoherent. Exhaustion will set in. Breathing will become reduced and heart rate will be lowered. In severe cases, the sufferer may lapse into a coma and die. Sweating or getting wet can increase risk.
First aid for hypothermia includes getting the victim out of the cold, inside if possible, and replacing cold or wet clothing. You can use warm blankets (electric blankets work well), a sleeping bag and/or body-to-body contact to provide additional warmth. Be sure to insulate the victim’s head and neck as 50 percent of the body’s heat loss is through the head.
Do not massage the victim’s arms or legs. It will push cold blood toward the heart, possibly causing heart failure. Elevating the feet and lowering the head will safely promote increased circulation to the chest.
A hypothermia sufferer who is fully conscious and able to sit upright should drink warm, non-alcoholic, caffeine-free beverages.
Frostbite occurs when a part of the body actually freezes. It most commonly affects fingers, toes, ears, nose and cheeks. Mild or superficial frostbite entails the freezing of skin and subcutaneous tissue. There is often some discomfort or mild pain. A victim’s skin may become slightly discolored. Some numbing may follow. As fluids freeze and ice crystals form in the tissue, blisters will develop.
Mildly frostbitten skin should be warmed slowly. One method is to blow on or hold warm hands against the affected area. Warm water may be used, but never hot water or excessive heat. Do not rub or massage traumatized tissue. Once it has been warmed, be careful to avoid refreezing the area.
While mild frostbite seldom results in lasting damage, severe frostbite often does, affecting muscles, tendons, nerves and bone. Immediate medical attention is recommended.
If a victim is showing signs of both hypothermia and frostbite, treat the hypothermia first.
Avoid cold injury by wearing loose-fitting, lightweight, layered clothing that will keep you warm and dry. The innermost garment should be made of a material that wicks moisture away from the body. The outermost should offer protection from the wind. In-between layers should be made of wool or other warm materials. Wear wool socks, too, preferably in multiple layers. And put on warm boots that fit properly. Be sure to protect your head and neck with a hat, scarf and/or hood. Mittens offer better protection than gloves. Stay dry.
Children are extremely vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia because they do not recognize how dangerous they are. And don’t forget that pets are susceptible to cold injury, too.
Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.