Weather warnings in place across BC due to cold temperatures highlight the risk of frostbite and hypothermia, and first responders are warning people that these cold-related conditions can quickly become emergencies.
Health authorities in the normally mild Lower Mainland have posted on social media urging people to be aware of the symptoms – and to seek treatment when necessary.
When the body is exposed to cold temperatures for too long, it loses heat faster than it can produce it – and its overall temperature drops.
“Low body temperature can cause confusion and difficulty moving and can have serious consequences, including organ failure and death,” according to Vancouver Coastal Health.
Symptoms of mild hypothermia include shivering and difficulty moving the arms. At this stage, someone with hypothermia is still able to answer questions when asked and otherwise behaves “normally,” the health authority says. The advice when these symptoms appear is to “gently warm the body” by going to a warm place if possible, using hot water bottles, blankets or a warm shower. Skin-to-skin contact can also be helpful, especially in infants. If symptoms don’t go away after 30 minutes, VCH says to seek medical attention immediately.
Moderate hypothermia has symptoms that include difficulty speaking or moving, according to health authorities. At this point, shivering may stop and the hypothermic person may appear confused or sleepy. If these symptoms occur, seek medical attention immediately.
In the case of severe hypothermia, the person will stop shivering – in fact, they may stop moving completely and become unconscious. Glassy vision and slowed breathing are also possible signs of severe hypothermia. Even in these cases, immediate medical attention is required.
Fraser Health warns that frostbite can occur at any temperature below freezing.
“Frostbite is damage to the skin from exposure to the cold. It’s extremely painful and can lead to complications, including amputation. Many people think BC doesn’t get cold enough for people to get frostbite in the winter, but we’re seeing longer periods of dangerously cold weather than we have used to,” says Fraser Health.
The health authority notes that “chill” usually precedes frostbite.
Frostbite starts with cold skin, stinging/burning sensation, slight numbness and red skin. As it progresses to frostbite, the skin becomes completely numb, waxy to the touch, and very white, and may change color upon rewarming. Severe pain may occur. , swelling and fever,” according to its cold weather risks website.
Frostbite should seek immediate medical attention, especially since things like applying heat directly to the affected area, rubbing, or massaging it can cause more damage.
More information about hypothermia and other cold conditions is available online from Health Canada, HealthLink BC and the Canadian Red Cross.