It's easy to get cold quickly if you are
wet, windy, or cold weather. Cold temperature exposure can also happen if you
spend time in a dwelling or other building that is not well heated during cold
Injuries from cold exposure
"Frostnip" usually affects skin on the face,
ears, or fingertips. Frostnip may cause numbness or blue-white skin color for a
short time, but normal feeling and color return quickly when you get warm. No
permanent tissue damage occurs.
freezing of the skin and the tissues under the skin because of temperatures
Frostbitten skin looks pale or blue and feels cold,
numb, and stiff or rubbery to the touch.
Cold injuries, such as
trench foot or
chilblains, may cause pale and blistered skin like
frostbite after the skin has warmed. These injuries occur from spending too
much time in cold, but not freezing, temperatures. The skin does not actually
Eye pain or vision changes caused by cold exposure most often occur in
individuals who try to force their eyes open in high winds, cold weather, or
during activities such as snowmobiling or cross-country skiing. Snow blindness
is not directly caused by cold temperatures but does occur in snow conditions.
Sunlight reflecting off the snow can cause a corneal injury or
burn. Eyelids may become red and swollen. Eyes may feel dry and as
though they have sand in them.
An abnormally low body temperature (hypothermia) occurs
body loses heat faster than it can make heat. (There may be other reasons a person has a low body temperature. For more information, see the topic Body Temperature.) Early symptoms of hypothermia
include shivering in adults and older children; clumsy movements; apathy (lack
of concern); poor judgment; and cold, pale, or blue-gray skin. Hypothermia is
an emergency condition—it can quickly lead to unconsciousness and death if the
heat loss is not stopped.
Risk factors for cold exposure injury
There are many
factors that increase your risk of injury from exposure to cold
Many people get cold hands or feet, which often are
bothersome but not a serious health problem. You are more likely to feel cold
easily if you:
Do not have much body fat. Fat under the skin
helps keep you warm. People who have low body fat may be more likely to get
hypothermia. Babies, older or ill adults, or malnourished people have low body
Smoke cigarettes or drink caffeine. 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.
Are under a lot of stress or feel tired.
Chronic stress or anxiety can cause your nervous system to release adrenaline,
which acts to narrow the blood vessels that supply blood to the hands and
Do you have a problem from being exposed to cold temperatures?
This could include problems like frostbite or hypothermia.
Cold exposure problem
Cold exposure problem
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Did you pass out completely (lose consciousness)?
If you are answering for someone else: Is the person unconscious now?
(If you are answering this question for yourself, say no.)
Are you back to your normal level of alertness?
After passing out, it's normal to feel a little confused, weak, or lightheaded when you first wake up or come to. But unless something else is wrong, these symptoms should pass pretty quickly and you should soon feel about as awake and alert as you normally do.
Has returned to normal after loss of consciousness
Has returned to normal after loss of consciousness
Did the loss of consciousness occur during the past 24 hours?
Poor judgment and a lack of
interest in or concern about what's going on.
Pain in adults and older children
Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain
is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and
can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your
normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days.
Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's
Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain,
but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
Cold injury to the skin may
Numbness, tingling, or a
Hard, stiff, shiny, or rubbery skin.
Cold, pale, white, pink-purple, or blue-gray skin.
Blisters or sores.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and
arrange for care.
If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have
one, seek care in the next hour.
You do not need to call an
You cannot travel safely either by driving
yourself or by having someone else drive you.
You are in an area
where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need
Call911or other emergency services now.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind
of care you may need. These include:
Your age. Babies and older
adults tend to get sicker quicker.
Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart
disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care
Medicines you take. Certain
medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them
Recent health events, such as surgery
or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them
Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug
use, sexual history, and travel.
Symptoms of severe hypothermia may
Stumbling and having trouble
Weakness, confusion, or extreme
Slow, shallow breathing.
Slow or uneven
Most minor cold injuries will heal
on their own, and home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve your
symptoms and promote healing. But if you think you may have a more severe
cold injury, use first aid measures while you arrange for an evaluation by your
doctor. These first aid measures can also be used for children. Be sure to warm
the child's whole body with blankets as well as the cold injured parts.
If you have
immediate first aid measures. Stay calm, find shelter,
change to dry clothes, keep moving, and drink warm fluids to prevent further
heat loss and slowly rewarm yourself.
If small areas of your body
(ears, face, nose, fingers, toes) are really cold or frozen, try
home treatment first aid to warm these areas and prevent further injury to
skin. Warm small areas by blowing warm air on them, tucking them inside your
clothing, or putting them in warm water.
Frostbitten skin may be more sensitive after the cold injury.
The injured skin area should be protected with sunscreen and protective
clothing to prevent further skin damage. The color of the injured skin may also
change over time.
Apply aloe vera or another moisturizer, such as
Lubriderm or Keri lotion, to windburned skin. Reapply often. There is little
you can do to stop skin from peeling after a windburn—it is part of the healing
process—but home treatment may make your skin feel better.
nonprescription artificial tears warmed to body temperature to moisturize and
soothe eyes that are cold, sore, or dry from exposure to cold or wind.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription
medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Aspirin (also a nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drug), such as Bayer or Bufferin
Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and
forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two
medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
Be sure to follow these
safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
Carefully read and follow all directions
on the medicine bottle and box.
Symptoms of a
skin infection develop, such as redness, swelling, or
Blisters develop after you begin home
Symptoms have not gotten better or have gotten worse
after 1 hour of rewarming treatment.
Symptoms become more severe or
Many cold injuries can be prevented by
protecting yourself when you are outdoors in cold weather.
emergency kit if you are going into the backcountry so
you are prepared for cold, wet, or windy weather conditions that might
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 feel
Avoid touching metal, especially with wet hands, because it
will make you feel colder and may cause frostbite.
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
Do not drink alcoholic beverages. Alcohol:
Interferes with your body's ability to
regulate body temperature.
Affects judgment. For example, a person
may not put on more clothing when it is needed if his or her judgment is
changed by alcohol.
Can cause blood vessels in your 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.
Keep your hands and feet dry. Wear mittens instead of
gloves. Wear socks that retain warmth and keep moisture away from your
Protect your eyes from cold and wind by wearing glasses or
goggles if you are planning outdoor activities.
Prevention measures for children
Children may not be
aware of cold temperatures. Parents need to understand the
ways in which the body loses heat and:
Limit the amount of time a child is out in
cold, wet, or windy weather.
Dress children appropriately for the
weather conditions. Remember C-O-L-D:
Cover your child's
head, neck, and face as much as possible since a lot of heat loss can occur in
these areas. These areas are also at risk for frostnip or
frostbite. Apply lip protection.
Overexertion (being too active) can cause your child to sweat
and chill more quickly. Sweating causes clothing to become damp and increases
Layers of clothing will keep your
child warm and protect your child best against wind and cold
Dry is key in preventing cold
injury. Keeping your child dry with waterproof clothing reduces heat
Keep close watch on your children's body heat
even in the summer when they are swimming in a lake or pool for a long
Teach children to avoid touching cold metal with bare hands
or licking extremely cold metal objects. Cold is transmitted more easily
through metal and increases the risk of a cold injury, such as frostbite. Also,
your child's tongue might stick to the cold metal and be difficult to
Be aware that some states fund programs to help low-income
families add insulation or "weatherize" their homes to keep the family warm. Also, some low-income families may qualify for help in paying their heating
bills. Contact your state or local energy agency or the local power or gas
company for more information.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.