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First Aid: Cold Exposure

Intense cold can freeze the water in the body's cells (frostbite). In addition, exposure to cold may cause the body's overall temperature to drop (hypothermia). The result can be death.

The brain carries a temperature regulator that keeps the body near a healthy 98°F. But prolonged exposure to extreme cold may overwhelm this natural thermostat.

Man comforting a shivering woman in a blanket.

1

Raise Body Temperature

  • In case of frostbite, wrap the area in a soft, loose cloth and seek medical attention right away. If medical care is not nearby, hold the affected area under warm, but not scalding, water until normal skin color returns. Don`t cause additional tissue damage by rubbing the area affected by frostbite. Only try to rewarm the area if you are able to keep the person out of the cold. Warming and then refreezing will worsen the damage from frostbite.

  • In case of hypothermia, put the victim in a sleeping bag or wrap him or her in dry blankets. Be sure to remove any wet clothing first.

2

Give Warm Liquids

  • Provide warm liquids if the person is alert and aware of his or her surroundings. Tea or hot soup are good choices. Warning: Alcohol-containing beverages can actually worsen hypothermia.

Seek medical help if any of the following is true:

  • The person's fingers, toes, nose, or ears are numb.

  • The affected body part looks yellow-white or patchy blue.

Call 911 immediately if the victim has any of the following:

  • Exceptionally cold skin

  • Drowsiness, disorientation, or loss of consciousness

  • Loss of muscle control

While you wait for help:

  1. Reassure the person.

  2. Keep the person as warm and dry as possible. Do not be alarmed if the person begins to shiver. Shivering is the body's way of generating heat.

  3. Treat for shock or provide rescue breathing or CPR, if needed.

Man offering shivering woman a hot beverage

Online Medical Reviewer: Buzon, Rey C
Date Last Reviewed: 5/9/2011
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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