Cold weather can result in cold-related injuries and illnesses, such as frostnip, frostbite and hypothermia. Cold weather can also worsen pre-existing conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Learn how to spot the signs and symptoms of and treat cold-related injuries and illnesses. If you suspect frostbite or hypothermia, seek medical attention immediately.
Frostnip & Frostbite
Frostnip is an early stage of frostbite where there is no permanent damage to the skin. It can be treated by rewarming the affected area. Frostbite happens when skin and other tissues freeze and die because blood and oxygen can no longer circulate. Frostbite requires immediate medical attention. Frostnip and frostbite can affect any area of exposed skin, such as the cheeks, ears, nose, hands and feet. Prolonged exposure to extreme cold is of particular concern for extremities, such as fingers and toes.
Signs and symptoms of frostnip
- Red and cold skin (skin may start to turn white, but is still soft)
- Prickling and numbness
- Tingling and stinging
Signs and symptoms of frostbite
- Skin appears white or grayish-yellow and feels cold to the touch
- Skin feeling unusually firm or waxy
- Pins and needles, followed by numbness
How to treat frostnip
If you suspect you have frostnip, get out of the cold, wind, rain or snow and:
- Remove tight jewelry or clothing
- Place cold fingers in your armpits, or warm a cold nose or cheek with the palm of your warm hand
- Do not rub or massage the area
How to treat frostbite
Frostbite can permanently damage body tissues and severe cases can lead to amputation. If you think you have frostbite, get immediate emergency medical attention.
While waiting for medical help:
- Find warm shelter and remove wet clothes.
- If you can get out of the cold until medical attention is available, you can begin to warm the affected area.
- You can rewarm by:
- Immersing the affected area in warm but not hot water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
- Warming the affected area using body heat (for example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers).
- If warm shelter is not available and there is a possibility that skin will refreeze, do not try to warm frostbitten skin.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it (this can cause more damage).
- Do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes, if possible.
- Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp or the heat of a stove, fireplace or radiator for warming (since frostbite makes an area numb, you could burn it).
A person with frostbite may also have hypothermia. Get immediate emergency medical help if you think you have hypothermia.
Hypothermia is a serious medical condition that happens when the body’s normal temperature becomes too low.
Signs and symptoms of hypothermia
- Exhaustion or feeling very tired
- Confusion and/or memory loss
- Lower level of consciousness such as drowsiness
- Loss of muscle coordination, such as fumbling hands
- Slurred speech
How to treat hypothermia
If you think that someone has hypothermia, get immediate emergency medical help.
While waiting for medical help:
- Find a warm room or shelter, if possible.
- Keep muscles moving.
- Remove wet clothing (replace with warm, dry clothes).
- Wrap the person in blankets/dry clothing or reheat the body through skin-to-skin contact with another person.
- Drink warm, sweet liquids.
- Don’t fight shivering (this is one of the ways your body increases its core temperature).
- If a person is unconscious, lay them down and avoid shaking them or handling them roughly.