Updated: Feb 23, 2019
By Nellie Stidham
As this winter continues, education about cold exposure must continue. One of the best prevention tactics is knowing how to identify and properly prepare whenever faced with below freezing temperatures.
Many people have either experienced or witnessed some form of frostbite in their life. Frostbite happens when peripheral tissue temperature reaches less than 0.5 degrees Celsius (roughly 33 degrees Fahrenheit). When skin, typically that of the ears, nose, fingers and toes, is exposed to temperatures below freezing, it will endure three preliminary stages before experiencing deep tissue damage (Fudge, 2016).
Look out for exposed body parts going from feeling cold to painful, and eventually numb. If your skin looks paler than normal or appears bright red as if it had been slapped, it may be a sign of frostnip. Frostnip is superficial and will go away with proper warming. After this presentation, with no change in behavior, things worsen and lead to enter second- or third-degree frostbite. This transition is marked by skin blistering and swelling in the area, so if your extremities are feeling numb, cover-up or go inside (CDC, 2016)! If the skin is at all wet, head to a warmer place right away and allow the area to dry. Don’t forget hats and gloves especially when predicted wind chill is under -19 degrees Fahrenheit, as at these temperatures it only takes half an hour to develop frostbite!
While frostbite may seem familiar to anyone who has spent more than an hour outside skiing, snowboarding, or sledding, it’s important to know the indicators for hypothermia as well. Shivering is normal in the winter, and it’s understood that it’s your body’s way of warming itself from surrounding temperatures. Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. The first stage of hypothermia can be identified by increased shivering AND decreased social interaction or otherwise confused, drowsy behavior. Once your body has reached moderate hypothermia, the pupils dilate, and your heart begins to beat irregularly (Fudge, 2016). If you encounter someone that’s been outside for a long time and isn’t acting like their normal self, make sure to immediately bring them to a warm place, remove any wet clothes, and cover them with blankets. To learn more, go to
Pay attention to pulse when assessing someone that you suspect may have hypothermia. If vital signs are present, and they are conscious, bring them inside and give them warm, sweet drinks and warm blankets. If consciousness is at all impaired, call an ambulance, as immediate medical attention is necessary (Brown et al., 2012). Knowing these precautions is a great way to keep yourself and your friends safe this winter! Remember when skiing or snowboarding that windchill can affect how long skin can be exposed before contracting frostbite and that taking regular breaks inside can increase longevity on the slopes in the long run! Stay safe out there and enjoy the winter weather.
Whenever you get new coats, gloves, scarves, or hats, remember to donate your old ones! Having the right clothes is essential to preventing frostbite and hypothermia and there are always people in need who appreciate gently used articles. If you have five or ten dollars to spare, COTS, a homeless center in downtown Burlington, has an Amazon Wish List that sends items directly to them! Here’s the link: https://smile.amazon.com/registry/wishlist/M97IOSY0SOHD/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_ep_ws_tg-szbXF05GY0
Fudge, J. (2016). Exercise in the Cold: Preventing and Managing Hypothermia and Frostbite Injury. Sports Health, 8(2), 133–139. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738116630542
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016, December 20). Hypothermia|Winter Weather. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe/hypothermia.html
Laskowski, E. (2018, August 29). 2 easy, accurate ways to measure your heart rate. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/expert-answers/heart-rate/faq-20057979
Brown, D. J. A., Brugger, H., Boyd, J., & Paal, P. (2012). Accidental Hypothermia. New England Journal of Medicine, 367(20), 1930–1938. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMra1114208