Articles - First-Aid Treatment for Cold Exposure

If small areas of your body (ears, face, nose, fingers, or toes) are really cold or frozen, try these first aid measures to warm the areas.

  • Avoid activities that can further damage cold-injured skin. 
    • Do not rub or massage frozen skin.
    • Do not re-warm frozen skin if refreezing is possible.  Wait until you reach shelter.  The injury will be worse if your skin freezes, thaws, and then refreezes.
    • Do not walk on frozen feet if possible.  However, it is better to walk on frozen feet than to thaw your feet if there is a chance they will refreeze.
    • Do not put snow on the area or pack snow around the limb.
  • Warm small areas of the body by:
    • Blowing warm air onto cold hands.
    • Tucking hands or feet inside warm clothing next to bare skin.  Place chilled fingers in an armpit.
    • Cupping cold ears with warm hands.
    • Putting cold hands, feet, or ears in warm water [104°F-108°F (40°C-42°C)] for 15 to 30 minutes.  Do not use water above 108°F (42°C).  Warm towels can be used to warm the genital area but be careful to not burn the skin.
    • Using a hot water bottle covered with a cloth or a heating pad on a low setting.  Be careful to not burn your skin.
    • Being aware that if you (or the person) sit in front of a heater or a fire to warm up, there is a greater chance of getting burned.  This is because normal feeing is lost in cold-injured skin and you may not know when to move away from the heater or fire.
  • Protect the cold or frozen body part from further cold exposure and bruising.  Pad frozen fingers or toes.  Gently wrap fingers or toes in soft, dry material, such as cotton or gauze.

Cold Temperature Exposure - Prevention 

Many cold injuries can be prevented by protecting yourself when you are outdoors in cold weather.

General Tips

  • Bring an emergency kit if you are going to into the back country so you are prepared for cold, wet, or windy conditions that might arise.
  • Head for shelter that will protect you from wind and rain if you get wet or cold.
  • Avoid doing too much activity and sweating.  Sweating increases heat loss through evaporation so you will fee cold.
  • Avoid touching metal, especially with wet hands, because it will make you feel colder and may cause frostbite.

Nutrition Tips

  • Eat plenty of food to help maintain your body heat.  Carry high-calorie foods, such as candy bars and trail mix, when going out in cold weather.
  • Drink plenty of water.  Carry extra water with you and drink it hourly.  Your urine should be clear, not yellow or orange.  If you are not urinating every 2 to 3 hours, you probably are not drinking enough fluids.
  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages. 
    • Alcohol: Interferes with the body’s ability to regulate body temperature.
    • Affects judgment.  For example, a person may not put on additional clothing when it is needed if his or her judgment is changed by alcohol.
    • Can cause blood vessels in the skin to dilate.  This increases heat loss.
    • Reduces your ability to sense cold because it depresses the nervous system.
  •  Do not use caffeine and do not smoke while in the cold.  Nicotine (from tobacco) and caffeine cause narrowing of the blood vessels in the hands and feet.  When blood vessels are narrowed, less blood flows to these areas, causing the hands and feet to feel cold.

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Clothing Tips for Cold Weather Injuries
  • Wear proper clothing and shoes.  Keep extra protective clothing and blankets in your car in case of a breakdown in an isolated area.  Know the different ways in which the body loses heat so you can protect yourself from cold exposure.
  • Keep your hands and feet dry.  Wear mittens instead of gloves.  Wear socks that retain warmth and keep moisture away from your skin. 
  • Protect your eyes from cold and wind by wearing glasses or goggles if you are planning outdoor activities.

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