With an arctic front soon to bring at least a few hours of snow and ice to parts of Mississippi, AMR paramedics remind us: Plunging temperatures and wind chill are a direct threat to life and limb, especially for elders, small children, the chronically-ill, substance-abusers and individuals who stay out in the cold for long periods.
AMR medics have advice for avoiding, recognizing and treating two deadly cold-induced conditions, hypothermia and frostbite. Both conditions can and do happen in the southern United States. The risk is high for someone who is outdoors, gets wet, stays wet and has extensive exposure to severe wind chill. Hypothermia can also occur indoors such as in homes without heat.
To avoid hypothermia and frostbite, AMR medics say:
- Wear at least three layers of clothing, even indoors. Layering the clothes conserves more body heat than one thick garment. The layer closest to the body should be thin, made of polyester or similar material. The first thin layer should pull moisture from your skin. The next layers should be bulkier, providing more insulation. Wool is a sound choice unless you are at risk of getting the wool soaked. Newer materials such as polyester pile are also recommended. For the outdoors, the top layer should resist rain, sleet or snow and have zippers for venting body heat when you get warm.
- Wear a stocking cap or a hood that covers all of the face except the eyes, nostrils and mouth. The Wilderness Medicine Society has reported that a shivering person loses a high percentage of body heat through the scalp.
- Wear mittens, not gloves; mittens keep hands warmer than gloves.
- Immediately remove clothing that gets wet and layer on another dry outfit.
- Keep at least one room in the home at a comfortable temperature. Close the doors to rooms that are not in use and cover heating vents in those rooms. Jam towels or blankets under the bottom of doors to conserve heat. Closing curtains cuts heat loss through windows.
- In cold weather, friends of elders should check on them frequently, as age weakens the body’s ability to sense and adapt to temperature changes.
Hypothermia is dangerously low cooling of the body’s internal temperature. Hypothermia victims go through stages of shivering, numbness, confusion, drowsiness and, eventually, they become unconscious. Unless emergency aid is provided, death soon follows.
First aid for hypothermia includes removing the person from the cold setting, if possible. If the patient is outdoors, shield him or her from wind. Give CPR if needed. Remove wet clothes and wrap the patient in warm materials. If – and only if – the victim is alert, give warm non-alcoholic drinks. Never give anything by mouth to someone who is less than fully alert. Treat the patient gently.
Frostbite is the actual freezing of a body part, most often the fingers, toes, ears or nose. The part often feels hard and waxy and may be discolored.
First aid for frostbite includes removing the person from the cold setting. Handle the affected part gently to protect it from further injury. Do not rub the frostbitten part. Do not allow the victim to try to use the part, such as walking on frostbitten toes. Wrap the part in a dry, sterile dressing. Never put ice on frostbite.
Re-warm the frostbitten body part only if hospital care is remote or unavailable. After re-warming, never let the part re-freeze.
When hypothermia or frostbite may have struck, call 911 immediately for trained, equipped help from your local ambulance service.