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First Aid for Overexposure to the cold – Frostbite and Hypothermia Treatment– 9 Essential Tips

What is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a condition which is triggered when the body’s warming abilities fail or are overwhelmed. This causes the body temperature to drop below 35°C, under the normal average of 37°C.

With the onset of winter, Victorians are exposed to colder, wetter and windier weather conditions. You could find yourself in a situation where hypothermia arises and if the condition is not identified and managed within the early stages, it has the potential to develop into a serious health emergency.

What Are The Warning Signs For Hypothermia?

When the body temperature falls initially, early warning signs may include:

  • Feeling cold
  • Shivering
  • Clumsiness and slurred speech
  • Apathy and irrational behaviour

As the body temperature continues to drop, signs to look for include:

  • Shivering usually stops
  • Pulse may be difficult to find
  • Heart rate may slow
  • Level of consciousness continues to decline

As the body temperature drops below30°C, warning signs include:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Irregular heart rhythm

Tips on How to Prevent Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s warming mechanisms fail and the body temperature drops below 35°C. In order to avoid falling susceptible to hypothermia you must:

  • Avoid extremely cold, wet or windy weather conditions
  • When entering cold, wet or windy environments always dress weather appropriate. Clothing items may include; thermals, woollen socks, beanies, gloves, heavy-duty boots, waterproof pants and jacket.
  • Pay extra attention to children and the elderly in cold, wet or windy environments. Children and the elderly are more vulnerable to colder temperatures and may not be able to tolerate conditions as well as adolescents and adults.
  • Always ensure babies are dressed weather appropriately. Babies have the ability to become hypothermic in temperatures which adults would not be impacted by.

Important note: Babies lose heat very easily. A baby may look healthy and happy with the only signs of hypothermia being cold skin, unusual quietness, drowsiness or lack of appetite.

What Steps Should You Follow For Hypothermia Treatment?

If someone is showing the signs of hypothermia it is imperative you follow the DRSABCD plan immediately. You can refresh your memory of DRSABCD here.

Once you have applied DRSABCD you must follow these steps for hypothermia treatment:

  1. Move the person to a warm, dry place (sheltered from wind and rain)
  2. Handle the person gently when moving
  3. Avoid excess activity or movement
  4. Keep the person in a horizontal position
  5. Remove any wet clothing
  6. Place the person in a blanket or sleeping bag
  7. Cover the head to ensure as much body warmth is retained as possible
  8. If conscious give the casualty warm drinks (NOT alcohol)
  9. Provide warmth to the person with hot water bottles or heat packs to the neck, armpits and groin
  10. If hypothermia is severe, call Triple Zero and stay with the person until medical aid arrives

What is Frostbite?

Frostbite is a result of the skin and underlying tissue freezing due to overexposure to below zero temperatures. It is a progressive injury.

Frostbite is caused by overexposure to below zero temperatures. If an environment with below zero temperatures includes heavy winds and exposure to water, the likelihood of someone suffering from frostbite rises.

There are two types of frostbite; Superficial Frostbite and Deep Frostbite.

With Superficial Frostbite the skin can still move in relation to the underlying tissue. It is the full thickness of the skin that is frozen, not the tissue beneath.

With Deep Frostbite the skin cannot move as a result of the underlying tissue being frozen. This means both the full thickness of the skin and tissues underneath are frozen. In some cases, the skin may be frozen to the bone.

A less serious condition caused by cold temperatures is Frostnip. Frostnip is a condition in which only the top layer of the skin is frozen and the person has full mobility of the affected area.

What Are The Stages of Frostbite?

Steps to Follow If Someone You Know is Suffering From Superficial Frostbite

If someone is showing the signs of Superficial Frostbite like any other First Aid event you must follow the DRSABCD plan. You can refresh your memory of DRSABCD here.

Once you have applied DRSABCD you must follow these steps:

  1. Move the person to a warm, dry place (sheltered from wind and rain)
  2. Rewarm the frostbitten area with body heat by placing the area in an armpit or warm hands
  3. Prevent affected areas from freezing by ensuring that the person stops exposing themselves and the area to potential causes. This includes avoiding exposure to cold water or dressing inappropriately in cold weather

Steps to Follow If Someone You Know is Suffering From Deep Frostbite

If someone is displaying signs of Deep Frostbite you must follow the DRSABCD plan instantly. Once you have applied DRSABCD you must follow these steps:

  1. Prevent any further heat loss from the frozen part and rest of the body by covering the person with a blanket or sleeping bag
  2. Handle the frozen area gently to avoid any further tissue damage
  3. Keep the casualty as still as possible
  4. Move the person to a warm, dry place (sheltered from wind and rain) and avoid walking if the legs or feet are frozen
  5. Call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance

If medical assistance is not readily available, thaw the frozen area as instructed:

  1. Make the patient as warm as possible
  2. Gently remove clothing from affected area
  3. Fill a container large enough to hold the frozen part with warm water (approximately 40°C). A great way to measure whether the temperature is appropriate for the frostbitten area is by dipping your elbow in the water. If the water feels warm to the elbow it is an appropriate temperature for frostbite
  4. Keep adding warm water to maintain temperature
  5. Keep the affected area in the water until it is pink. This can take up to 40 minutes and may be painful for the person
  6. Keep the area raised and warm. Do not burst any blisters that form
  7. Call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance

At the beginning of winter, people are often unprepared for the harsh weather conditions approaching. When leaving the house ensure you have taken all the preventative measures listed above to avoid falling susceptible to hypothermia or frostbite.

It’s important you acknowledge the change of seasons and are prepared for cold, wet and windy weather conditions at all times.  Hypothermia and frostbite can often be avoided, don’t risk the loss of fingers, toes or even limbs because you didn’t prepare for harsh weather conditions.

Remember, if you do get Frostbite, the correct treatment and management is critical to the survival of the areas impacted. Always follow advice recommended in St John First Aid Training.

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