University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Eric W. Dickson, MD
Director of Emergency Medicine
First Published: January 2004
Last Revised: January 2004
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
Winter weather can be nasty, and two of the meanest winter culprits are hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia: When your body is unable to maintain a core temperature of 95 degrees F, you begin to shiver, your speech slurs, your breathing slows, your skin is cold and pale, your coordination suffers, and you are lethargic and apathetic. Young children, the elderly, and the ill are the most vulnerable.
Wet, damp clothing, an uncovered head, and inadequate clothing can contribute to hypothermia. Other conditions that make an individual susceptible include excessive consumption of alcohol, cardiovascular disease, and an underactive thyroid.
To treat hypothermia, bring the person out of the cold. Remove wet clothing and replace it with warm, dry clothing. Wrap the person in blankets. Call 911 for emergency assistance. Provide a warm drink--do not give the person alcohol.
"Persons pulled from icy water should lay still, be dried and covered. Movement of the extremities can cause cold blood to return to the heart, resulting in a life-threatening change in cardiac rhythm," says Eric W. Dickson, MD, Director of the Emergency Medicine Program at UI Hospitals and Clinics.
Frostbite: Skin on fingers, toes, earlobes, cheeks, and noses are the most vulnerable to prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, wet clothes, and forceful winds. Blood vessels near the surface of the skin constrict to preserve internal body heat, reducing blood flow to the skin. The result is frostbite. Frostbite ranges from white or yellowish skin accompanied by itching or burning sensations, numbness, and in the most severe cases, blistering.
To treat frostbite, bring the person out of the cold. Remove wet or constricting clothing, including jewelry. Call 911 for emergency assistance. Do not rub frostbitten areas or apply direct heat.
Winter survival tips
In case of an extended power outage:
- Keep a supply of water, foods that need no cooking, and any needed medications.
- Have an alternative heat source--kerosene heater or wood stove.
- Have battery-powered radio, flashlight and clocks--and extra batteries.
- Check the radiator system.
- Replace windshield washer fluid with a wintertime mixture.
- Replace worn tires.
- Check the air pressure in the tires.
- Keep the fuel tank near full to help avoid ice in the fuel lines.
- Equip your car with:
- First aid kit
- Booster cables
- Bag of sand or cat litter (for traction on ice)
- High-calorie canned or dried foods
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Bottled water