First Aid: Cold Exposure

Intense cold can freeze the water in the body's cells (frostbite). Also, exposure to cold may cause the body's overall temperature to drop (hypothermia). The result can be death.

The brain carries a temperature regulator that keeps the body near a healthy 98°F (37°C). But prolonged exposure to extreme cold may overwhelm this natural thermostat.

Step 1. Raise body temperature

  • In case of frostbite, wrap the area in a soft, loose cloth and seek medical care right away. If medical care is not nearby, hold the affected area under warm, but not scalding, water until normal skin color returns. Don't soak affected area for prolonged time. Don`t cause additional tissue damage by rubbing the area affected by frostbite. Only try to rewarm the area if you are able to keep the person out of the cold. Warming and then refreezing will worsen the damage from frostbite.

  • In case of hypothermia, put the victim in a sleeping bag or wrap him or her in dry blankets. Be sure to remove any wet clothing first.

Step 2. Give warm liquids

  • Give warm liquids if the person is alert and aware of his or her surroundings. Tea or hot soup are good choices. Warning: Alcohol-containing beverages can make hypothermia worse.

When to seek medical help

Seek medical help if any of the following is true:

  • The person's fingers, toes, nose, or ears are numb.

  • The affected body part looks yellow-white or patchy blue.

Call 911

Call 911 right away if the victim has any of the following:

  • Exceptionally cold skin

  • Drowsiness, disorientation, or loss of consciousness

  • Loss of muscle control

While you wait for help:

  • Reassure the person and don't leave him or her alone.

  • Keep the person as warm and dry as possible. Don't be alarmed if the person begins to shiver. Shivering is the body's way of generating heat.

  • Treat for shock or do rescue breathing or CPR, if needed.