Frostbite and Hypothermia – Signs, Symptoms and Treatment

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

With winter in full swing, there are certain safety precautions we should all take to avoid cold weather injuries such as hypothermia or frostbite. Hypothermia is a serious condition that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing a dangerously low body temperature that, if not treated quickly, can be fatal.  It is most often caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in a cold body of water. Individuals who are at a higher risk for hypothermia include the very old, the very young, those with hypothyroidism, those with mobility issues, and intoxicated persons. Therefore, it is important for these groups and caretakers to be aware of the symptoms of hypothermia, especially during the winter months.

The severity of hypothermia varies from mild to severe, depending on a person’s core body temperature:

  • Mild Hypothermia – when core body temperature is between 89 - 95 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Moderate Hypothermia – when core body temperature is between 82 - 89 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Severe Hypothermia – when core body temperature is less than 82 degrees Fahrenheit

As people develop hypothermia, often their abilities to think and move slowly decline. In fact, they may even be unaware that they need emergency treatment. Other symptoms of hypothermia include. Without prompt treatment, individuals suffering from hypothermia can slip into a coma. For mild cases, passive treatment options, such as removing wet clothing and using dry blankets, may be all that is needed. In moderate and severe cases, active treatment is necessary. Active treatment involves the removal of wet clothing, the use of humidified warm air, warm intravenous fluids administered in a hospital setting, heated blankets and applying heat packs to the groin and underarm areas.

It is always important to call 911 immediately if you or someone around you is experiencing symptoms of hypothermia.

Frostbite is a cold contact injury to the tissue caused by the freezing of the skin that normally affects the extremities, such as the face, ears, nose, fingers and toes. Wearing inadequate, constrictive or wet clothing can lead to frostbite, which is why it is important to dress appropriately. For cold weather, you should wear three layers of clothing on your torso, warm socks, gloves (preferably mittens), and warm head and neck covering. Signs of frostbite are throbbing or shooting pain and swelling in the affected area. To treat frostbite, remove any wet or constrictive clothing and immerse the area in clear, warm water of 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not treat frostbite if there is a chance that the area will refreeze. The process can be painful, and your physician may suggest ibuprofen, Tylenol or a prescription pain reliever to help ease your discomfort. Frostbite can put you at risk for tetanus, and your physician may recommend getting a tetanus vaccine soon after treatment.

Cone Health has an exceptional network of primary care, emergency medicine and other healthcare professionals dedicated to treating hypothermia and other common emergencies seen during the winter season.

Spokesperson Background:

Dr. Thomas Thekkekandam is a sports medicine specialist at Cone Health Primary Care & Sports Medicine at MedCenter Kernersville. Dr. Thekkekandam received his Doctor of Medicine from Ross University School of Medicine in 2009. He completed his residency in family medicine at Cone Health and a sports medicine fellowship at the Cone Health Sports Medicine Center. Dr. Thekkekandam is board-certified in sports and family medicine.

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.