WHAT TO DO WHEN THE COLD TRIES TO KILL YOU
What is it?
When the body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is not your skin’s temperature or even the reading from an oral thermometer, but the temperature at the center of your body where all your vital organs are.
- Slow loss of mental and physical function
- Loss of coordination
- Slurred speech or mumbling
- Inability to think clearly
- Pale and cold skin
- Uncontrollable shivering
- Slowed breathing or heart rate
Dress for the worst case weather, keep yourself and your clothing dry, wear a wind shell to protect yourself from heat loss through convection and evaporation, eat high calorie foods to keep your body’s furnace blazing, stay hydrated, add or remove layers as you start to get cool or warm to avoid getting sweaty, and most importantly, monitor yourself and those around you for signs of hypothermia and take action if needed.
Remove the mechanism sapping body heat. Get out of the cold, protect yourself from the wind, remove damp clothing and dry your body.
Minimize heat loss. Get into a sleeping bag or a warm garment, put on a dry warm hat, gloves and socks to protect the areas that lose heat the fastest. Get to a warmer area, either indoors or by a fire or stove. Raise the core body temperature. Share body heat through skin to skin contact. If conscious, warm non-alcoholic and caffeine-free liquids can help warm up the core. Apply warm dry compresses like a hot water bottle to the groin, chest wall and neck where the heat will move throughout the body the fastest. Gentle massage may help blood flow but vigorous massage or movements may actually cause more problems. Avoid using direct heat; do not use heat lamps or heating pads as the extreme difference in temperature may cause damage to the skin. In extreme cases the person may lose consciousness and may stop breathing. In this case CPR should be given immediately.
What is it?
When your skin freezes.
- Discoloration of the skin in mild cases
- Blisters in severe cases
- Blackened skin in the worst cases
- Frozen tissue feels wooden to the touch
- Lack of feeling or numbness
- Significant pain after rewarming
- Skin is cool or cold to the touch
- Tingling, blistered, swollen, or tender areas
- Tissue does not respond to the touch
Prevention: Avoid things that restrict circulation such as tight-fitting clothing, alcohol, or cigarettes. Dress for the weather, keeping exposed skin covered to avoid exposure. Keep an eye on the wind chill factor to determine if you are in danger of frostbite. Keep clothing clean to maximize its insulating capabilities. When handling extremely cold objects or materials use the appropriate safety equipment and procedures.
“Frostbite can cause a variety of problems from blisters to blackening of the skin depending on how severe the freezing has progressed.”
Treatment: After the area has been rewarmed, guard against it getting re-frozen. If it might re-freeze it is better to leave it frozen until you can get the person to an area where it can be thawed and kept thawed to prevent additional tissue damage. Do not rub the affected area but placing your hands directly against the skin in your groin or under your armpits is effective. Exposure to intense heat, like open flames or heating pads should be avoided since you want to warm the area gradually. Putting the affected area in warm water is very effective but the area can also be warmed by putting it in a room temperature environment or with direct contact with skin.
What is it?
When the amount of water you take in as food and drink is less than the amount you give off in respiration, perspiration and urination.
Mild to moderate:
- Increased thirst
- Dry mouth
- Tired or sleepy
- Decreased urine output
- Urine is low volume and more yellowish than normal
- Dry skin
- Few or no tears
Severe (seek medical care):
- Severely decreased urine output or no urine output. Urine, if any, is concentrated and a deep yellow or amber color.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness that does not allow the person to stand or walk normally.
- Blood pressure drops when the person tries to stand after lying down (low blood pressure or orthostatic hypotension)
- Rapid heart rate
- Poor skin elasticity (skin slowly returns back to its normal position when pinched)
- Lethargy, confusion, or coma
Prevention: Keeping yourself well hydrated is simple in concept but sometimes difficult in execution. You should drink throughout the day, not just at meals, and not just when you are thirsty. Actually, if you are thirsty you are already becoming dehydrated. If you are sweating due to the heat or from exerting yourself, ensure you are also getting the electrolytes you are losing by drinking sports drinks, adding salt to your foods and eating fruit.
Treatment: Drink water and other fluids in small amounts until you are no longer thirsty. Increase your intake of electrolytes from sport drinks and food sources.
What is it?
Photokeratitis is an inflammation of the eye caused by the cornea being burned by ultraviolet rays, either directly from the sun or reflected off the snow.
- A gritty feeling in the eyes
- Bloodshot eyes
- Eye pain
- Increased watering or tearing
- Involuntary twitching of the eyelids
- Temporary loss of vision, or permanent loss in cases of repeated exposure.
- Eyes may swell shut in extreme cases.
Prevention: To keep from getting snow blindness you should wear dark sunglasses, preferably the wrap-around style, to keep the bright sunlight and ultraviolet rays from entering your eyes. You can fashion an effective replacement from any flat material you can cut a narrow slit in, similar to the snow goggles the Inuit use.
Treatment: Get in a shaded area and rest your eyes. Use a dark or heavy cloth over your eyes to block as much light as possible from getting to your eyes. If you use contact lenses they should be removed as well. If the pain does not go away you should seek medical help. A cool compress will help reduce the pain. Healing may take from one to three days if you keep your eyes shaded. Placing gauze pads or other padding over the eyes will help to keep out the light.
What is it?
Immersion foot, or trench foot as it was called during World War I, is swelling, soreness, and bleeding of the skin of the foot that occurs when the tissue is exposed to wet and cold conditions between 60 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit for prolonged periods of time.
- Aches, increased pain sensitivity and infection
- Cold, numb feet that may progress to hot with shooting pains
- Swelling, redness and bleeding may become pale and blue
- Keep your feet clean and dry. Dry your shoes and replace wet or damp socks as soon as possible with clean and dry socks.
- Do not pop blisters, apply lotions or creams, massage, expose to extreme heat or permit the person to walk, which can increase tissue damage and worsen the injury.
- Raise the affected limbs and cover with layers of warm, dry clothing.
- Remove wet or constrictive clothing, gently wash and dry affected extremities.
Now that you know what your major enemies are when out and about in the cold and snow, keep an eye on yourself and your friends to prevent them from happening or catch them early before they can cause any serious problems. And remember, any of these can happen to anyone. You aren’t immune.
Although often said as folk knowledge, the following are not only false but dangerous.
- A drink of alcohol will warm you up: Alcohol will not make your body warmer, it will only make you feel warmer. It expands the blood vessels and contributes to more rapid heat loss. If you are already fighting the cold weather, alcohol will only worsen the problem.
- Rub your hands if you get frostbite: Rubbing frostbitten (dying) skin tissue can cause damage that cannot be repaired after the skin thaws out. Gradual re-warming with body heat or warm water or air should be used.
- Wearing extra clothing to bed or in your sleeping bag will warm you up faster: In reality, the less you have on in bed or in your sleeping bag the faster it will warm up. If you wear extra clothing you are only heating up the air in the clothing and between the clothing and your body which will not produce much heat. Having more exposed skin surface area exposed to the air in your sleeping bag or bed will allow it to heat up much faster and will also trap more heat for a warmer night’s rest.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.