There are plenty of unpleasant things supplied by the colder months—holiday traffic, less daylight, and cabin fever, just to name a few—but winter also brings serious dangers. As temperatures drop and the snow piles up, it’s important to know how to treat cold-related injuries and conditions in case of an emergency.
Slips and Falls
We’ve all encountered those pesky invisible patches of ice: suddenly your feet are above your head, and you’ve got a few new bruises to show for it. Falls can cause more serious issues, though, like broken bones and head injuries.
Minor injuries—bruises and sprains—can be treated with the RICE method. If the injured person can’t move, is unconscious, or is in serious pain, don’t move them until professional help arrives. If the person hit their head, look for the warning signs of a concussion in the hours following the fall.
To avoid slipping on the ice, treat every walkway like it’s covered in ice. If it takes waddling like a penguin to keep yourself safe, so be it. If you find yourself falling, try to catch yourself, prioritize protecting your head, and drop anything you’re carrying—saving a bag of groceries isn’t worth a serious injury to your noggin!
Frostnip and Frostbite
Frostnip precedes frostbite and occurs when the tops layers of the skin freeze. The skin may be red, pale, or numb, but frostnip is easily reversible.
Get indoors if possible—if not, protect the area from further exposure, and don’t try to thaw the skin until there’s no risk of it refreezing. Warm the area gradually by blowing warm breath or submerging it in body-temperature water (97-99 degrees).
To avoid damaging the tissue, don’t rub the area, and don’t use heating pads or fire to warm it—numb skin is vulnerable to burns. There may be slight tingling or pain as feeling returns, but frostnip is not permanently damaging.
Frostbite, however, is more serious, occurring when ice crystals form between cells. Skin looks blue or pale when affected, but it might feel warm as the frostbite advances. Small, exposed parts of the body are especially susceptible, so keep your toes, nose, and fingers tucked away when you’re in the cold! Frostbite is irreversible but possible to recover from if caught early; if left untreated, it can affect the muscles and bones.
Again, seek shelter. If possible, keep the victim from walking if their toes or feet are frostbitten, and get medical attention ASAP, especially if the case is severe. In the meantime, remove clothing that’s wet or preventing blood circulation. Elevate the area, and follow the same gentle, gradual warming procedures described for treating frostnip.
If you’re not in a survival situation, avoiding the nips and bites of frost is mostly common sense: wear layers designed to keep you warm, avoid thin ice, and don’t stay exposed to the cold for long periods of time.
Hypothermia happens when the body can’t replace the heat it’s losing. Early signs include disorientation, poor coordination, fatigue, and shivering; as it advances, look for pupil dilation, shallow breathing, and irregular pulse. The victim may also stop shivering as their body loses its ability to warm itself.
Call for help—hypothermia can be fatal. Get the victim indoors or to shelter and help them lay down. Layer them with warm clothes and blankets, removing any wet garments. Hot packs—wrapped in towels to protect the skin—can be placed in areas that lose heat quickly, like the armpits and groin.
If the victim is already unconscious, the hypothermia has advanced to a life-threatening stage. Wrap the person in blankets, and get them immediate medical help. If they stop breathing or have no pulse, begin CPR.
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