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Winter dangers: frostbite and hypothermia

Posted at 2:25 PM, Dec 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-21 16:38:30-05

GREAT FALLS — We’ve talked a lot the past few days about avoiding frostbite and hypothermia, as Montana experiences an extreme “arctic plunge” with temperatures dropping below -20° in most areas. Overnight temperatures, once wind chill is factored in, could drop to below -45° in some areas.

But what are they and what should you do if you think you have frostbite or hypothermia?

Frostbite is when your skin and underlying tissue freeze. A prickling feeling, numbness, and discolored skin are signs you’re starting to get frostbite. For frostbite, blisters are a sign you may need medical help.

The Mayo Clinic provides this overview:

Frostbite occurs in several stages:
  • Frostnip. Frostnip is a mild form of frostbite. Continued cold exposure leads to numbness in the affected area. As your skin warms, you may feel pain and tingling. Frostnip doesn't cause permanent skin damage.
  • Superficial frostbite. Superficial frostbite causes slight changes in skin color. The skin may begin to feel warm — a sign of serious skin involvement. If you treat frostbite with rewarming at this stage, the surface of the skin may appear mottled. And you may notice stinging, burning and swelling. A fluid-filled blister may appear 12 to 36 hours after rewarming the skin.
  • Deep (severe) frostbite. As frostbite progresses, it affects all layers of the skin as well as the tissues that lie below. The skin turns white or blue-gray and you lose all sensation of cold, pain or discomfort in the area. Joints or muscles may stop working. Large blisters form 24 to 48 hours after rewarming. The tissue turns black and hard as it dies.

Hypothermia is when your core body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Symptoms include slurred speech, slow and shallow breathing, and a weak pulse. For hypothermia, try to warm up with hot pads or blankets. If you notice a person’s mental state has changed and they don’t seem to be “with it” you might need to get medical help.

Winter Danger: Frostbite and Hypothermia

Joe Joslyn, a physician assistant with Alluvion Health, explained, "When you get a second-degree frostbite injury, you have to watch out for the blisters that may occur on there. Those could occur up to 24 hours after the initial injury. You can initially start treatment with frostbite with warm water, about 82 to 102 degrees, and kind of put their extremities in there for 15-30 minutes and just watch them for any progression of the blisters."

The best way to avoid frostbite and hypothermia is to limit your time exposed to the cold and wear warm clothing, especially making sure to protect your extremities.