Exposure to the cold on a normal basis is harmless especially when properly clothed. However, once the body receives prolonged, unusual or unprotected exposure to excessive cold temperatures it will begin to experience stresses on its normal functions that can lead to serious complications. Hypothermia is one such condition.
Being immersed in ice cold water or in areas that are cold can force the body’s temperatures to drop significantly and hypothermia can set in within minutes. Wet clothing in cold environments is also a common cause since this helps to rapidly remove the body’s natural heat. Infant and small children have a high susceptibility to hypothermia.
The reason the conditions sets in so quickly is the simply fact that the human body as a very narrow temperature window or range in which its metabolism, central nervous system and physiological functions can operate. When the body loses heat several internal responses occur in a bid to maintain temperatures close to 98.6 98.6°F or 37°C which is noted as the body’s core temperature.
The body makes an attempt to preserve the heat present in vital organs like the lungs, heart and brain by diverting its blood flow to the upper parts of the body. The lower limbs and hands become cold before other areas do. Once cold, the muscles in these areas begin to contract involuntarily to produce a motion know as ‘shivering’ which is actually the body’s natural defense against the cold air around it. The feet, legs, arms and hands are therefore built to handle the cold better than the areas that the blood is redirected to.
Symptoms and Treatment for Exposure to Cold
Once hypothermia starts to set in, symptoms such as loss of coordination, staggering, lethargy, numbness, weakness, sleepiness, inappropriate behavior and confusion present themselves. Moving victims to warmth is the best treatment since getting the temperature outside the body back to normal will stop damages and the condition from progressing as well as restore the body to its natural state. Depending on the length of exposure or the dramatic difference in temperature between outside and inside the body, higher than normal heat may be needed.
In the event that removal is impossible, victim should be sheltered from cold winds and where possible wet clothing should be changed. Once not immersed in icy water, victim can be placed in a sleeping bag to generate heat. Someone unaffected by the temperature can join the victim thereby contributing to the process with their own body heat. In the absence of a bag, multiple jackets, towels and body heat can be used instead. If symptoms continue, consciousness is lost or victim was immersed in water, rush person to the nearest emergency hospital.
Frostbites (hardened, numb skin that is often white) can be caused by exposure to cold as well. It frequents the toes, fingers, ears and nose because these tend to be exposed or have a limited blood supply. Remove victims from cold; try thawing frozen areas with warm (not hot) water or compresses. Immerse body in a tub of warm water if affected area is extensive or numerous. Avoid direct heat since areas can still burn and do not rub or irritate them. An Acetaminophen (pain killer) can be given if pain occurs in thawed areas. Keep the body warm until normalcy is returned.
The best way to deal with exposure to the cold is to dress appropriately for it. Both conditions can easily be treated however, in extenuating circumstances, death or loss of affected body parts (necessary amputation or deadening of area) can result.