The coming winter season brings with it a special kind of beauty you can’t get any other time of the year. Think of snow-covered landscapes, then combine those with the excitement of outdoor adventures.
However, it also poses unique challenges. The biggest of these is the increased risk of two potentially serious conditions: frostbite and hypothermia. Both of these are deadly serious and both of them can absolutely be fatal if left unrecognized or untreated.
Recognizing the signs and, even better, knowing how to prevent these conditions before they occur and treat these cold weather threats after they do is essential for anyone venturing out into the frigid wilderness, be you a recreational hiker or a hardcore survivalist.
The Importance of Understanding Frostbite
Frostbite is a cold-related injury occurring when skin and underlying tissues freeze after prolonged exposure to extreme cold. You’re most likely to experience frostbite in your extremities like your fingers, toes, and ears.
Early symptoms of frostbite range from numbness, tingling, coldness, and pale or hardened skin. In some severe cases, blisters may form, and tissues will become blackened due to tissue death. Once this happens you will likely need to seek immediate medical treatment if you value the limb or extremity that is suffering from frostbite.
If you want to prevent or treat frostbite, follow the following advice:
- Seek Shelter: Get out of the cold and wind immediately upon noticing that you have early signs of frostbite.
- Remove Wet Clothing: Wet clothing increases heat loss, which increases your chance of getting frostbite. Replace your wet clothes with dry layers.
- Rewarm Affected Areas: Immerse any frostbitten areas in warm (not hot) water or use body heat. Avoid direct heat sources, which can cause further damage.
- Pain Management: Over-the-counter pain relievers can help with discomfort, but will not do anything to treat the underlying condition.
Hypothermia is another serious condition related to too much exposure to the cold of winter months. This condition occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing a dangerously low body temperature at the body’s core. Hypothermia, much like frostbite, can be life-threatening if not properly treated in time.
Early signs of hypothermia include shivering, confusion, fatigue, slurred speech, and clumsiness. In severe cases, shivering may stop, and the person may become unresponsive, or the person might actually feel extremely hot. Hypothermia might be easier for someone else to recognize than you, so when out in the extreme cold, try not to go it alone.
Hypothermia can be treated thusly:
- Get to Warmth: Move the person to a warm, dry area.
- Remove Wet Clothing: Remember that wet clothing exacerbates heat loss, meaning that a person in wet clothing is going to get colder faster.
- Warm the Person: Wrap the victim in blankets or, if you don’t have any blankets, warm, dry clothing. Use your body heat to help rewarm them.
- Warm Drinks: Offer warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages that can help to heat the body back up from the inside out.
Preventing Cold Weather Injuries
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So here are some ways that you can prevent these conditions from occurring in the first place:
- Dressing in Layers: Layer your outdoor winter clothing. This will trap warm air while also providing insulation. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer on the bottom, add insulation in the middle layers, and finish off with a windproof and waterproof outer layer.
- Proper Footwear: Investing in insulated, waterproof boots with good traction will help to keep your feet warm and dry. Use moisture-wicking socks to prevent wetness, which is the enemy of your toes under any weather conditions.
- Hand and Head Protection: Always wear gloves or mittens and a warm hat to protect your extremities from cold exposure. A neck gaiter can further help to insulate you or, better yet, a balaclava or ski mask.
- Stay Dry: Wet clothing can dramatically increase the risk of frostbite and hypothermia. Use waterproof clothing on the outside and moisture-wicking clothing on the inside. Keep an extra set of dry clothes on hand if possible.
When to Seek Medical Attention
In some cases, mild cases of frostbite or hypothermia can be treated at home. However, you should seek immediate professional medical attention in the event that you have a severe case. Signs of this include:
- Blackened or blistered skin
- Hypothermia symptoms that get worse after initial treatment
- Shivering cessation
- Loss of consciousness
Frostbite and hypothermia are real threats in cold weather, and you should not take them lightly. However, with knowledge, preparedness, and the right actions, you can seriously mitigate the risks. Don’t let the risk of cold injury keep you inside during some of the most beautiful times of the year. Layer up, stay warm, and enjoy the winter wonderland safely.
Have you ever had any experiences with frostbite or hypothermia? What happened and how did you deal with it? Share your experiences in the comments below.