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Frostbite and Hypothermia

Beautiful snow creates perfect conditions for the winter sports enthusiast, however, occasional frigid temperatures combined with high winds may bring on potentially life-threatening situations. So enjoy our midwest winters, but respect the weather and all its dangers.

What is Frostbite?
Frostbite is an injury that results from frozen tissues. Light frostbite involves only the skin that takes on a dull, whitish color. Deep frostbite extends to a depth below the skin. The tissues become solid and hard. Your feet, hands, and exposed facial areas are particularly vulnerable to frostbite.

If with others, prevent frostbite by using the buddy system. Check your buddy's face often and make sure that he checks yours. If you are alone, periodically cover your nose and lower part of your face with your mittens. Do not try to thaw the affected areas by placing them close to an open flame. Gently rub them in lukewarm water. Dry the part and place it next to your own skin to warm it at body temperature. The best protection is prevention.

Frostbite and Hypothermia can sneak up on you before you know it has happened. According to the U.S. Army, at -30ºF, your fingers can become frostbite in only eight minutes!

To prevent frostbite
Obviously, the first method of prevention is not to expose yourself to extreme cold. If that is not possible and you find yourself in a dangerous predicatment, observe the following:

In Your Vehicle
The best advice is to keep your car in good condition; fluids, oil changes, belts, gas full, etc., in other words - good maintenance. If however, you still get stranded the advice is as follows: If you are in your car - stay there. Do not walk to any houses unless you are in town and a house is only a short distance [meaning a few feet] away. Never walk if you cannot visually see where you are going. Be prepared ahead of time and keep the following supplies in your car:

  • blankets/sleeping bags
  • high-calorie, non-perishable food
  • flashlight with extra batteries
  • first aid kit, including a knife
  • a red piece of cloth [for a flag]
  • extra clothing to keep dry
  • a large empty can and plastic cover with tissues and paper towels for sanitary purposes
  • liquid to drink, water or juice - or perhaps hot chocolate or soup. NO ALCOHOL
  • a smaller can and water-proof matches to melt snow to drink
  • sack of sand (or kitty litter)
  • shovel
  • windshield scraper and brush
  • tool kit
  • tow rope
  • booster cables
  • water container
  • compass
  • road maps
  • cell phone
Remember, alcohol is a depressant and may put you to sleep. You must stay alert to watch for assistance. Put a flag on your antennae, preferably red. The possibility of getting stranded in a midwest snowstorm is one of the best reasons to invest in a cell phone. Always let someone know where your going and the route you are going to take. Be responsible. Check in. This is especially hard for teenagers and young adults who are exercising their new-found freedoms. But when the weather is severe it is critical.

If you are outside and can't get to shelter, it is imperative that you keep moving. Don't wait until you start shivering. Move and keep moving as much as possible. Jump. Slap arms across chest. Blow on hands. Stuff hands under clothing (inside pants or under armpits). Wriggle toes. Arch feet. Bend ankles. Make faces. Cup hands on face. Button up clothing. Shout. Loosen tight clothing. Pull ears, nose, lips. Clench fists. Bend and unbend fingers and toes. Exercise muscles when cramped. Huddle together.

Beware of wind and/or rain - they greatly increase the risk of hypothermia or frostbite. A fall into snow-rimmed water can mean critical exposure. Roll over and over in the snow. Jump up and bang off snow. Roll in it again. Repeat until warm all over and snow has absorbed most of the water. Don't spill gasoline on bare skin. Don't touch bare metal in freezing cold. Don't shove snow clad gloves into pockets. Sit on something other than snow or ice. Don't chafe or rub sore skin. Once you are warm keep moving by working but be careful not to work up a sweat which can cause damp clothing. Keep working until warm and sheltered.


Defined as the body's failure to maintain a temperature of 97ºF. Hypotermia is caused by exposure to cool or cold temperatures over a short or long time. Dehydration and lack of food and rest increase the risk of hypothermia. Symptoms include slow or slurred speech, incoherence, memory loss, disorientation, uncontrollable shivering, drowsiness, repeated stumbling, and apparent exhaustion. If these symptoms are detected, take the person's temperature. If below 95ºF, immediately seek medical help. You must gradually warm the hypothermia victim. Get the victim into dry clothing. Replace lost fluids, and warm him. Always warm the body core/trunk first. If needed, use your own body heat to warm the victim. Get the person into dry clothing, and wrap them in a warm blanket covering the head and neck. Do not give the person alcohol, drugs, coffee, or any hot beverage or food; warm broth is better. Do not warm extremities [arms and legs] first. This drives the cold blood toward the heart and can lead to heart failure. One method is to get into a sleeping bag with the victim (mostly naked) and warm him with your own body heat.

Wind Chills

A word about the wind chill factor. Temperature is measured in terms of a thermometer reading. Yet, just measuring air temperature can be somewhat deceptive. People, and other living things, generate heat from their bodies. The wind causes our bodies to lose heat by cooling it off quicker than just the air temperature alone woulc accomplish. The "Wind Chill" is based on the rate of heat loss of exposed skin caused by the combined effects of the cold temperature and the wind speed. As the wind speed goes up, the rate of heat carried away from the body also increases, which in turn drives down the body temperature. The wind chill tells us a what the temperature actually feels like to the unprotected skin. It is a more accurate assessment of the potential threat of frostbite and hypothermia.

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