Providing first aid in winter emergencies

How to Provide First Aid in Winter Emergencies

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The lights, time with family and friends, and holiday cheer! But for some parts of the country, the Christmas season also brings with it snowstorms, windchill, and frigid temperatures, creating the perfect atmosphere for a winter emergency.

Are you prepared to provide wintertime first aid?

Related: Do you know how to respond to an emergency?

How to Treat Frostbite

Women with cold hands

Frostbite can occur in as little as 5mins! Knowing how to administer first aid in this situation can be vital to preventing nerve damage.

Frostbite is an injury caused by the freezing of your skin and is common when your skin is exposed to extreme cold, usually associated with frigid winds and temperatures.

It happens when your skin is not fully protected by gloves or other garments. It may also present itself when covered skin is in the elements for too long.

Because the body protects its vital organs first when responding to the cold, the parts of the body that are distanced from your core are often most affected, including toes, fingers, ears, and face.

Warning Signs for Frostbite

The Mayo Clinic identifies the following as warning signs and symptoms of frostbite:

  • At first, cold skin and a prickling feeling
  • Numbness
  • Red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
  • Blistering after rewarming, in severe cases

Treating Frostbite

If you are out in the cold and suspect that you or someone you’re with has frostbite, follow the steps below:

1. Move to a Warm Location & Remove Wet Clothing

When frostbite is suspected, get to a warm location immediately to prevent further damage. Remove any wet clothing immediately and replace with dry, warm garments.

2. Slowly Warm Affected Area

Begin warming the affected area slowly by using a basin of warm water. Immerse area for 20-30 minutes. You can also use blankets, warm clothing, or anything else you can find to raise the temperature. For areas difficult to immerse in water, you can place a washcloth with warm water on the affected area for a minimum of 30 minutes.

According to WebMD, the affected area may begin to turn red as it warms, and the patient may feel a painful stinging sensation. If the pain is severe when thawing, go to the nearest emergency room immediately for further treatment.

Warning: Never Immerse in Hot Water

Never immerse a potentially frostbitten area in hot water. Often in frostbite cases, the skin has gone numb, making it easy to damage the affected area when unable to feel if the water is too hot.  

3. Going to the Emergency Room

Go the emergency room or seek medical attention if you notice any of the following warning signs:

  • Skin changes color or becomes hard
  • Feeling does not return in affected area
  • You experience severe pain as the affected area warms
  • Skin blisters begin forming

Source: WebMD

How to treat Hypothermia?

When out in the cold for long periods of time, your body can struggle to produce heat faster than it is losing it. If prolonged, your body becomes incapable of producing enough heat and your body temperature can drop dangerously low.

This is when hypothermia sets in, causing vital organs to stop working properly, which may result in cardiac and respiratory issues or even death.  

Warning Signs of Hypothermia

The Mayo Clinic lists the following as symptoms:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bright red, cold skin (in infants)

If you or someone with you is suffering from hypothermia, follow these vital first aid instructions.

Move to a warm place

Immediately get the person to a warm location, if the situation allows. Use slow, gentle movements if the person needs aid. Sudden or jarring movements may trigger a cardiac arrest.

Related: How to respond to a cardiac arrest

If you are far from a warm location or are unable to move the person out of the cold, do your best to shield them from the cold and/or wind until you reach a warm place.

Replace Wet Clothing

If the person is wearing damp or wet clothing, always remove and replace with dry, warm clothing. If necessary, cut away clothing.

Slowly Warm the Person with Blankets and Compresses

Slowly warm the person by providing blankets and other warm garments to cover the person. Cover the entire body, leaving only their face exposed.

Never use excessive or direct heat, such as hot water, heating pads, or direct exposure to a heat source. This can increase the risk of a cardiac arrest and cause damage to the skin. Instead, use warm, dry compresses to the neck, chest, or groin area. This allows the body to slowly warm from the core out to the limbs.

Some first aid kits will include a warm compress bag that warms up when squeezed. You can make your own with a plastic bottle or by placing a towel in the dryer for several minutes.

Related: Why your first aid kit should be ANSI certified

In using compresses, never apply direct to arms or legs, as it could force cold blood back to the heart or lungs, causing the core temperature to drop.

If the person is able to swallow, provide a warm, sweet beverage that is non caffeinated and non-alcoholic.

Seeking Medical Attention

If the person’s condition does not begin to improve, immediately call 911 and seek further medical attention.