Hypothermia and frostbite can occur when one is exposed to cold water, air or snow. Frostbite is a skin condition that is characterized by the freezing of tissue layers, leading to hardening and numbness of the skin. Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when the body’s temperature falls below 95 degrees F or 35 degrees C.
If an individual is repeatedly exposed to cold, his or her body temperature can drop to a low level. As body temperature decreases, blood vessels close to the skin constrict and blood supply to the areas that are farthest from the heart decreases. This lack of blood may lead to the freezing and death of tissue in the affected areas. Frostbite usually affects the hands, toes, ears and nose. In worse cases, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels and tendons may freeze, causing a condition known as deep frostbite. The deep frostbite forms purplish blisters on the skin which turn bluish-black. This condition often leads to amputation of fingers and toes.
Hypothermia is an emergency condition that can lead to unconsciousness or even death if heat loss continues. Its early symptoms include cold and blue-gray skin, uncontrollable shivering, slurred speech, numbness in hands, difficulty performing tasks, apathy, unsteadiness in balance, stiffness in muscles, memory loss, dizziness, shallow breathing, confusion, and slow pulse rate. As the body temperature decreases, respiratory rate, heart rate and blood pressure of a victim decrease. Cellular metabolic processes shut down, muscle coordination becomes very poor, and the victim exhibits irrational behavior. If heat loss is not stopped, major organs fail, leading to death.
Frostbite and Hypothermia Treatment
Appropriate clothing can help to prevent frostbite and hypothermia. Clothes made of synthetic wool fibers provide maximum protection against cold weather. Protecting hands and head by wearing gloves and hat can also help save up to 40 percent of the body heat that can be lost when the upper extremities and head are exposed. In case of frostbite, excessive movement of the affected tissue can cause ice crystals to do further damage. Splinting and wrapping frostbitten tissue help prevent such movement. Immersing the injured extremities in a water-bath that is held between 104-110 degrees F for 10 minutes, 2-3 times a day helps increase blood flow to frostbitten areas.
Mild hypothermia can be treated by getting rid of the cold environment, using warm blankets, and using heaters. This helps raise the victim’s body temperature in cold-related conditions to prevent the progression of symptoms. Moderate to severe hypothermia is treated in a hospital, where physical therapy experts use special techniques to warm the core body temperature. They apply warming devices externally such as warmed forced air which has been shown to be very effective in alleviating the symptoms of initial stages of frostbite and hypothermia. Placing a hot water bottle in both groin and armpits also helps alleviate the symptoms of moderate hypothermia. Doctors may also use intravenous warmed fluids, warm humidified inhaled air, or extracorporeal warming such as via a heart lung machine to treat severe hypothermia.
Call Happy Physio today on (08) 9272 7359 to get the best advice from our expert physios about cold exposure.