Cold Related Emergencies

There are two types of cold related emergencies, hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia results in a dangerous drop in body temperatures. Frostbite occurs in very freezing and sub-freezing temperatures. Frostbite is the freezing of body parts exposed to the cold.


In cold temperatures your body can lose heat faster than you can produce it. Prolonged exposure to cold may result in hypothermia, an abnormally low body temperature. Body temperatures that drop too low affect the brain an make it difficult to think clearly or move quickly. Hypothermia is dangerous because you may not know it's occuring until it's too late. Often people misunderstand hypothermia believing that it only occurs in sub-zero temperatures. While it is true that hypothermia is more likely at very cold temperatures, it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

Symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • shivering but shivering may stop in severe cases
  • numbness - glassy stare
  • confusion - apathy - impared judgement
  • fumbling hands - slurred speech - drowsiness

Care for Hypothermia

A person suffering with hypothermia will have cool or cold skin, even under their clothing. They may be confused or clumsy. If you suspect a person is suffering from hypothermia get medical attention immediately and:

  • Gently move them into a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove any wet clothing
  • Warm the core of the body dry layers of blankets or clothing
  • Warm non-alcoholic beverages only if fully conscious

Do not try to warm them too quickly by immersing them in warm water or using direct heat such as a space heater.


Frostbite typically affects smaller, more exposed areas of your body, such as your fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin.

Symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Red, white, pale or grayish-yellow skin
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • A cold or burning feeling
  • Numbness
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
  • Blistering, in severe cases
  • Lack of feeling in the affected area

Care for frostbite

  • Get the person out of the cold
  • Handle the area gently
  • Call 911 to seek medical attention as soon as possible
  • Monitor for signs of hypothermia

Only if you are not close to a medical facility:

  • Gently warm by soaking the affected area in warm water - not above 105 degrees until color returns and the area feels warm
  • DO NOT attempt to rewarm the area if there is a danger it might refreeze
  • Loosely bandage the area with dry, sterile, non-stick dressings.
  • Place sterile gauze between fingers and toes to keep them separated
  • Avoid breaking bisters

Remember if it is cold enough for frostbite it is cold enough for hypothermia.