Cold-Weather Emergencies: Hypothermia & Frostbite

"Engine 25 respond to an unconscious person located under the railroad bridge. Cross street is West Ox Road. Weather reports continue to indicate a wind chill of minus 17 degrees" When the body temperature falls into the subnormal area (below about...


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People weakened by old age, exhaustion or hunger are the most susceptible to frostbite. The frostbitten part first becomes numb and then acquires a bright red color. Eventually, the area loses its color and changes to pale white. The frostbitten part must be quickly rewarmed. This can often be easily accomplished by placing the fingers, toes, or ears next to a warm body part. For example, place the frostbitten fingers in the armpits.

Treat the frostbitten patient for shock. DO NOT rub a frostbitten area in an attempt to rewarm it and never rub snow or ice onto a suspected frostbitten area. Doing so will only make the problem worse. A frostbitten patient who has been outside for an extended period of time (for hours) should be transported to a medical facility for rewarming under carefully controlled conditions.

Prevention is the only effective means of combating frostbite. If you are going outside in freezing weather, dress warmly and make sure the vulnerable parts of the body are well covered or protected.


Garry Briese is the executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and, along with David Schottke, co-author of the new edition of First Responder: Your First Response In Emergency Care, available from Jones & Bartlett Publishers. The book is produced by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the National Safety Council.