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Avoiding and Treating Hypothermia and Frostbite

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: July 28, 2022
Avoiding and Treating Hypothermia and Frostbite

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Cold weather is already a part of life in many parts of the country. Even here in the Southeast, we are experiencing colder temps that have led to us closing the vents and making sure that everything is ready to go when those 20 F nights become the normal way of life.

If you like to get outside for recreation, hunting, and other pursuits then staying warm is important. Those of you that are in warmer areas should still be aware of hypothermia. It is totally possible to get hypothermia when it is 60 degrees outside, and you get wet and cannot get dry.

I live in the mountains of North Carolina and people that come to visit are in the mindset that they are in the South so how could they get hypothermia in the Spring or Summer? It just takes getting wet and the temps being mild. Some rivers are very cold here.

A few years back we went rafting on the Nantahala River and despite wearing pretty good gear, Matt and I were cold. I had on sandals and my feet felt frozen! This was August 1 and it was a cloudy slightly rainy day. Hypothermia can happen in all but the very warmest climatic zones!

True Hypothermia Versus Just Being A Bit Chilled

When body heat dips below 95 degrees, the person will start to show some signs of hypothermia.

Signs of Hypothermia

Mild Hypothermia

  • Mumbling and grumbling. Speech that is uncharacteristic of the victim is a sign for sure. Even someone that is normally a happy go lucky type will often grumble and mumble a lot if they start to get chilled enough.
  • Sudden personality changes. If someone was happy a few hours ago but their mood has turned much darker or they are just acting “off,”, you should check them out. People tend to get quieter when they are experiencing a major drop in body temperature.
  • Obvious shivering or teeth chattering in some cases

Severe Hypothermia

This type of hypothermia means it has progressed to the point of being life-threatening. Minutes count for a lot when someone reaches this point. In addition to some of the signs of mild hypothermia, severe cases also exhibit the following symptoms.

  • Loss of balance or coordination. Trouble standing, using hands for small tasks, or weakness are definite signs of severe hypothermia.
  • Shivering has stopped
  • Body temperature has reached a point where it is below 90 F.
  • Speech is very slurred or not at all understandable
  • The victim may attempt to take all their clothes off

Here are some tips for avoiding hypothermia followed by treatments you can do yourself.

1. Don’t wear cotton when you know you will be outside and possibly in rough conditions during cold or wet weather. Always wear a good hat and add a scarf if conditions are very cold.

Synthetic clothing is not as expensive as it once was even if you get really good brands. I love cotton for comfort, but it is terrible under wet conditions. Invest in synthetics for everyone in your family.

2. Have excellent raingear

I thought it was a lot for a raincoat when I saw my Mountain Hardware coat for $100. I caught a sale and got it for $50, but it was the most I ever paid for just a raincoat. This was a good investment. My bottoms are LL Bean Ski pants with some insulation because normally when I need something like this, I need the warmth as well. Again they were a clearance special and had served me well. Good rain gear is your protective shell and one of the most important ways to protect against hypothermia. No matter what you have on underneath. This is one reason is it always a good idea to keep at least an emergency poncho in your car

Winter Clothing Preparation For The Whole Family

Best Rain Ponchos For Prepping and Survival

3. Be aware when you stop physical activity. You can cool off fast.

When you are moving you have a lot of body heat to rely on but as soon as you stop that advantage can quickly dissipate. This means you need to make sure to put something on sooner rather than later after stopping activity during cold or wet conditions. Raingear can lead to a lot of heat and sweat retention depending on how well what you buy breathes. Have layers available and use them wisely.

4. Remember that smaller people get cold faster than bigger ones

Kids get cold faster than adults, but the same is true for smaller adults. Kids are also burning off calories very fast and using some of them for growth and development. Take plenty of extra food for them when doing any activity during the cold months.

There is a reason why a lot of people tend to gain weight for the winter and lose it in the Spring. It is a very old survival technique. The problem now days is that we often gain but don’t lose it all because of the modern lifestyle and work duties.

6. Try to avoid doing chores or activities when temps and weather are particularly bad.

I realize that you have to get out and do stuff, and some of you live in places where winter often means -20 or -30F at times, but even so, it is wise to plan to feed the animals and such for the warmest parts of the day. If a particularly bad storm is on the way, then consider putting out extra food and not venturing out to the chicken coop that day. Planning a little bit can make things a lot easier!

7. Pay attention to weather forecasts and use them strategically

Getting caught out in your car in a blizzard or storm without any way to keep warm beyond how long your heater can be a very dangerous situation. Some very isolated roads may mean that help is a lot further away then it seems when you are driving it on a good day!

Weather forecasts can also help you make sure you have all the supplies you need to keep all your family and your livestock and pets warm and safe during a major winter weather event! I was always thankful that my Dad and Uncle always kept the house well stocked so when the weather turned foul in the North Cascades, it did not matter that we were 10 miles away on treacherous roads from the nearest grocery store or 5 miles from a gas station.

This was well before anyone had access to a local radar online all the time. The FM radio and shortwave transceiver was our main source of news since we had no cable television.

8. Eat well and stay hydrated

Being exposed to cold weather and wet conditions is no time to stick to a diet. You should make sure to avoid burning more calories than you consume when exposed to these conditions. Staying well hydrated is also helpful in preventing hypothermia. If you can drink something warm or hot, it is even better.  You have probably noticed that you crave more calories when the temps outside start to dip.

When Matt and I were living in a camper that we struggled to keep 60 degrees F when winter temps were 0F-20F, we consumed more food. The same thing happened when we moved into the house and did not get the insulation in until temperatures had already plummetted.

I know a lot of people try to keep the heat on low or avoid turning it on until they have to in the winter, but it sure means craving more food. I sometimes wonder how much it really saves people.

Remember that being cold also makes a lot of people much grumpier than they realize, so there is that to consider as well!

9. Avoid stopping and cooling off if you find yourself or someone in your group is unprepared 

A lot of stop and go can contribute to hypothermia sometimes. It can be a tough call if someone is exhausted or already suffering from symptoms but if you are close to being able to get to a warm house or car, don’t stop unless you have no choice. Evaluate your situation and do what you think is best but remember every stop you make encourages drops in temperature.

10. Be extremely careful when near water or icy frozen over rivers, ponds, etc. 

Falling into icy water is never a good thing. BDS had an excellent post on how to survive a fall through ice that is worth looking at if you are near a lot of icy waters throughout the cold months.

Treating Hypothermia

If someone is showing signs of hypothermia, the sooner you start treatment, the better. Here are some guidelines for providing care.

Remain calm and be gentle.

People that are suffering from hypothermia are not thinking straight and can be very sensitive on an emotional level.

Find the best shelter you can

Getting out of wet conditions and cold drafts is important. A warm house is ideal, but any shelter is better than nothing. A rock ledge and building a fire can save someone’s life!

Any wet clothing or footwear should be removed.

It is better to be naked by a fire than be sitting in wet clothes. Clothing can be wrung out and allowed to dry.

Provide dry clothing and/or blankets. An emergency blanket or bivvy is excellent

Hypothermia victims must be warmed up gradually. Too fast can cause problems. A warm, dry compress like a heating pad or hand warmers are options if you have them.

Give as many warm beverages to the person suffering as they can drink but make sure they don’t chug too fast.

Warm beverages like broth or even just water help body heat to gradually rise and is comforting. Soup is a good choice too because of the additional nutrition it provides. Calories help you stay warmer or heat up when cold.

Frostbite can be present in addition to hypothermia

Frostnip versus Frostbite

The Mayo Clinic uses the term “frostnip” to describe the milder forms of frostbite. This is not that serious if treated promptly. Warm up the affected areas slowly and avoid future exposure.

Signs Of Frostnip or Frostbite

Frostbite is most common in extremities or the exposed skin of the face and neck.  A good scarf or face mask goes a long way towards preventing cold injury to the face and neck, and if you breathe through it, the chill is taken off the air you are taking in.

  • Tingling or pins and needles feeling from the cold. I have experienced this out playing in the snow and getting my hands wet or from not having thick enough gloves on! This also brought back memories of washing dishes outside when it was too cold, and we were living rough to build the house.
  • Numbness. If you start to not feel something, then this is a major sign something is wrong, and you need to get warmed up!
  • Hard skin that appears waxy
  • Discoloration of the skin. With frostbite, the skin may turn red, white, bluish, or even have on a yellow hue.
  • Inability to use extremities with skill. Not being able to tie your shoelaces is an example.

Remember that the treatments recommended in this post are basic and not a substitute for getting medical attention as soon as possible if severe hypothermia symptoms are present.

Getting someone warmed up and dry immediately is very important, but after that, you may need more help. Don’t wait for a doctor to start the warming up process!

Sever hypothermia and frostbite may require a lot of attention from a trained medical professional. The risk of ventricular fibrillation is high with someone that is truly suffering from severe hypothermia.

Moderate to severe frostbite needs to be evaluated and treated. Even mild frostbite needs to be monitored in case of complications. Don’t hesitate to seek help if there is no improvement. Losing even a toe is very serious and expensive due to medical costs and lost work time.

Have you ever been a hypothermia victim? Have you been in a position where you had to treat someone for hypothermia? Please share tips and stories in the comments.

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4 Responses to “Avoiding and Treating Hypothermia and Frostbite”

  1. Amish Remedy for Frost bite: 1 ounce olive oil, 1 ounce pine resin turpentine, 1 ounce ammonia. Mix well and bottle. Rub a small amount into frostbitten skin. These are some home remedies from the Wickey sisters in Switzerland County, Indiana’s Amish community.

  2. On a beautiful August day in the Cascade Mountains, the weather was 67 degrees, and I got mild hypothermia. My fingers, toes, and nose were blue and my teeth were chattering. I never got wet, but we were driving a jeep without the canvas top. In the wind I got cold. The folks our group said “you can’t be cold” and dismissed my symptoms. Luckily, one young man was experienced in mountain survival and recognized the symptoms. He took me back to the cabin and zipped me into a sleeping bag that was rated to 30 degrees below zero. It took 3 hours for me to stop shivering and I didn’t feel warm enough to come out of that sleeping bag until the next morning. If someone has the symptoms of hypothermia, no matter how unlikely, take it seriously!

  3. 20°?
    In Michigan, we are just starting to put something over our T shirts.
    Something light, mind you. Maybe a flannel if it gets to 15°. . .

  4. Not too bad a discussion on prevention, wet and wind are the greatest heat stealers. Head and feet are most exposed and get cold quickest. We also shut off circulation to areas if centrally cold, therefore accelerate cooling extremities and if very cold frostbite. Read “Endurance” the only casualty was some frozen toes of a man who didn’t follow the rules, and the men stayed the winter near the South Pole. Getting a warm person in a wrap with the cold person is said to be a safe and effective way to keep from freezing. U.S.Army, Battle of Bulge. On frozen pipes, try to keep water running both hot and cold. If frozen thaw out with hair dryer ASAP. Slow thawing, large crystals, expansion, busted pipes- very expensive and no water till fixed!!!

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