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Hypothermia & Frostbite

What is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature.  Normal body temperature is around 98.6 F.  Hypothermia occurs as your body temperature falls below 95 F.

When your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs can’t function normally.  Left untreated, hypothermia can eventually lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and eventually to death.

Hypothermia is often caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in cold water.

What is Frostbite?

Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing of the skin or underlying tissues.  First, your skin becomes very cold and red, then numb, hard and pale.  Frostbite is most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin.  Exposed skin in cold, windy weather is most vulnerable to frostbite, however, frostbite can occur on the covered skin as well.

Frostnip, the first stage of frostbite, doesn’t cause permanent skin damage.  You can treat very mild frostbite with first-aid measures, including rewarming your skin.  All other frostbite require medical attention as it can damage skin, tissues, muscle, and bones.  Possible complications of severe frostbite include infection and nerve damage.

Symptoms of Hypothermia

Someone with Hypothermia usually isn’t aware of their condition as the symptoms often begin gradually. In cold-weather your body will begin to shiver first as its automatic defense to warm itself.  Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred Speech or Mumbling
  • Slow, Shallow Breathing
  • Weak Pulse
  • Loss of Consciousness
  • Clumsiness or Lack of Coordination
  • Drowsiness or Very Low Energy
  • Bright Red, Cold Skin
  • Confusion or Memory Loss

How Your Body Loses Heat

The mechanisms of heat loss from your body include the following:

  • Radiated Heat – Most heat loss is due to heat radiated from unprotected surfaces of your body.
  • Direct Contact – If you’re in direct contact with something very cold, such as cold-water or the cold ground, heat is conducted away from your body.
  • Wind – Wind removes body heat by carrying away the thin layer of warm air at the surface of your skin. A wind chill factor is important in causing heat loss.

Prevention

The easiest way to prevent hypothermia and frostbite is to dress for the condition and to be aware of how your body is coping with the cold.  Try these suggestions for cold-weather work:

  • Dress warmly but wear layers so you can take clothing on and off as conditions change. Too much clothing can make you sweaty, setting the stage for chills.
  • To stay dry as you work, dress so that the layer next to your skin can ‘wick’ the moisture away. Wet clothing can lose up to 90% of its insulation value and drain your body heat away.
  • Make sure your hands and head are covered always to minimize your heat loss. Wear an approved cold-weather liner under your hard hat for added warmth.
  • If you need a hardhat liner for warmth in the winter, make sure it is approved for use with your hard hat so it does not interfere with protection. In severe weather conditions, particularly cold winds, you may need to cover your face with a scarf or woolen mask.
  • Extra socks, gloves, and boot liners are easy to stash in a pocket or pack as back-ups.
  • Your safety footwear should keep your feet warm and dry. Extra boot liners and warm winter sock will help.

 

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Michelle King