Update HSHS to remain in-network for Illinois Aetna click here to read more

Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia

February 03, 2022 

February can be one of the coldest and snowiest months of winter. With the upcoming sub-zero temperatures predicted for the region, HSHS Illinois hospitals and HSHS Medical Group clinics remind everyone the risk of cold-related injuries increases as the temps drop. The most common cold-related health issues are hypothermia and frostbite. 

Dr. Gurpreet Mander, HSHS Illinois chief physician executive, says while many people can and should stay indoors when the temperature drops to dangerous levels, some jobs require people to work in the cold. “Hypothermia and frostbite can set in very quickly and those who work outdoors should take steps to prevent these potentially serious issues.”

If you must be outdoors during frigid temperatures:

  • Dress in layers and wear insulated clothing that allows for evaporation and minimal absorption of perspiration. 
  • Take breaks. Be sure to warm up inside when needed. 
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. 
  • Avoid alcohol. 

Knowing the difference between hypothermia and frostbite is important so you know how to treat each condition.

Hypothermia occurs when the body's core temperature falls below 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Warnings signs include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness.

“When exposed to cold temperatures, your body starts to lose heat faster than it can be produced,” says Dr. Mander. “Long periods of exposure will eventually use up your body’s stored energy, which results in hypothermia.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you feel someone might have hypothermia:

  • Get the person into a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • Warm the center of the body first — chest, neck, head, and groin — using an electric blanket, if available. You can also use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels or sheets.
  • Provide warm, nonalcoholic beverages to help increase the body temperature.
  • Keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck, when his or her body temperature increases.
  • Get medical attention as soon as possible.

Frostbite is caused by freezing and most often impacts the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Symptoms of frostbite include: an area of white or grayish-yellow skin, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, and numbness. 

The CDC recommends that if you have signs of frostbite, but no sign of hypothermia, and immediate medical care is not available:

  • Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes—this increases the damage.
  • Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water. (The temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body.) Another option is to 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. 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.
  • Follow-up with your health care provider.

According to Dr. Marc McCleary, family medicine physician and associate medical director with HSHS Medical Group, preparation is your best defense against these types of cold-weather injuries. “Dress appropriately if you need to be in the cold; tell someone where you are going, when you expect to arrive and let them know when you get there; and keep warm clothes and boots in your car just in case it won’t start or breaks down,” said Dr. McCleary. “When it’s really cold, stay indoors if you can.”

More information can be found at the CDC.

Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia