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Home Treatment First Aid for Cold Exposure

Topic Overview

First aid measures may prevent further heat loss and help the body slowly warm up.

  • Remain calm. Fear or too much activity causes sweating. Sweating can make you feel chilled.
  • Find shelter so you can get out of the cold, the wind, or the water.
  • Remove cold, wet clothes.
    • Put on dry clothing, especially wool clothing or a synthetic fabric that insulates well, such as polypropylene. Cover your head.
    • If dry clothing is not immediately available, you can try to get warm by making skin-to-skin contact. After removing wet clothes, wrap a blanket or sleeping bag around you and another person and allow body heat to rewarm you.
    • Warm up under a heated blanket, if available.
  • Move around, but don't be so active that you sweat. Whirl your arms around like a windmill to get your blood moving and warm you up. Activity makes body heat and improves blood flow. Sweating should be avoided because it cools the body.
  • Drink warm fluids that do not contain caffeine or alcohol. Eat high-energy foods, such as candy. Do not give food or drink to a person who is acting confused or responding slowly.
  • Try to avoid putting your whole body in warm water. As a last resort, use a warm-water bath [ 100.4°F (38°C) to 105°F (41°C)] to rewarm if help is not available and other home treatments are not working to warm you up. Small body parts, such as a hand or foot, can be rewarmed by putting them in warm water. Do not put anyone who is not fully awake and alert into a warm bath.
  • Do not use tobacco.
  • Be 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 feeling is lost in cold-injured skin, and you may not know when to move away from the heater or fire.

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 rewarm 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 (40°C) to 108°F (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 not to burn the skin.
    • Using a hot water bottle covered with a cloth or a heating pad on a low setting. Be careful not to burn your skin.
  • 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.

Credits

Current as of: June 26, 2019

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine


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