Hypothermia & Frostbite: Know the signs and how to prevent them

Winter Resource Guide

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Winter in Southern New England. Some days can feel more like spring while others are comparable to living near the Arctic Circle.

When the mercury inside thermometer plummets – you best know how to protect yourself from Old Man Winter.

You’ve likely heard the terms ‘hypothermia’ and ‘frostbite.’ But what are they exactly?

Hypothermia occurs when the human body is exposed to cold temperatures for a duration of time. During that time, your internal body temperature begins to drop, which can lead to reduced brain function. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts it, “making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia especially dangerous, because a person may not know that it’s happening and won’t be able to do anything about it.” Hypothermia can lead to death.

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: The figure above shows the number of hypothermia-related deaths, by sex, in the United States during 1999-2011.

Between 1999 and 2011, a total of 16,911 people nationwide died from hypothermia; of those deaths, two-thirds were male.


Frostbite occurs when your body begins to freeze. It typically begins with your extremities such as your nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. According to the CDC, “Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation (removing the affected body part).”

National Weather Service: Wind Chill Chart

During extreme cold, it’s dangerous to leave any skin exposed since it can lead to frostbite.


Both of these cold-weather ailments can be prevented.

Always dress appropriately for weather conditions. Temperatures don’t need to fall below freezing for a person to develop hypothermia. According to the CDC, “it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.”

Signs of hypothermia:

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion or feeling very tired
  • Confusion
  • Fumbling hands
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • For babies: bright red, cold skin
  • For babies: very low energy

Hypothermia is a medical emergency. The CDC says if you suspect someone has hypothermia, take that person’s temperature. If it’s below 95°F, seek medical attention immediately.

If you can’t get to a medical facility, the CDC offers these tips:

  • Get the person into a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove any wet clothing the person is wearing.
  • Warm the center of the person’s body – chest, neck, head, and groin – using an electric blanket, if available. You can also use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
  • Warm drinks can help increase body temperature but avoid alcoholic drinks. Also, do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
  • After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrap their body – including their head and neck – in a warm blanket.
  • Get the person proper medical attention as soon as possible.

A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or be breathing. In this case, handle the person gently and get emergency assistance immediately.

  • Perform CPR, even if the person appears dead. CPR should continue until the person responds or medical aid becomes available. Keep warming the person while performing CPR. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.

Signs of frostbite:

  • A white or grayish-yellow skin area
  • Skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
  • Numbness

Frostbite should be examined by a medical professional. If a person shows signs of frostbite but no signs of hypothermia and immediate medical care aren’t available, the CDC suggests the following:

  • Get the person into a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on feet or toes that show signs of frostbite – this can worsen the damage.
  • Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
  • Put the areas affected by frostbite in warm – not hot – water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body.)
  • If warm water is not available, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, you can use the heat of an armpit to warm frostbitten fingers.
  • Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can easily burn.

At the end of the day, both hypothermia and frostbite are preventable. It all comes down to your day-to-day actions like dressing properly.

Education and awareness are key to reducing not only your chances but the chances of those in your life encountering hypothermia/frostbite.

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