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Published on January 20, 2014

Health Risks in Winter: Frostbite & Hypothermia

Footsteps in the snowDespite whether you are outside for work or play, it is important to understand the health risks of cold temperatures. Hypothermia and frostbite are common cold-related emergencies that may become life- or limb-threatening if left unattended.


Body temperature lower than 95 degrees Fahrenheit is known as hypothermia.  If skin is wet or exposed to wind, the risk is higher even when temperatures do not seem dangerously low. Hypothermia affects brain function and can lead to drowsiness, confusion and shallow breathing. For that reason, it is particularly dangerous as mentally unaware victims may not realize they are affected.


Frostbite is the freezing of body tissue, typically skin on extremities, such as fingers and toes.  It occurs when skin is exposed to cold temperatures for a prolonged amount of time, leading to contracted blood vessels and reduced blood flow and oxygen to the affected body parts. Like hypothermia, the risk is higher when skin is in contact with wet clothing or high winds. You may have frostbite if the area is numb, white or grayish, hard and waxy.

Hypothermia and frostbite are especially likely in children, the elderly and those with poor circulation. They can be avoided by staying inside during windy or frigid conditions, wearing appropriate winter gear (hat, gloves, scarf, etc.,) being outside in short increments, drinking plenty of warm water, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, and staying active to maintain body heat.

If you or someone around you experiences these symptoms, immediately take the victim into a warm, dry place and remove wet clothing. If hypothermia is suspected, call 911 for medical help.

As with any cold-weather concerns or questions, we suggest visiting your primary care provider.  If you do not have a provider, we invite you to call (319) 369-4444 to discuss your options. If you have an urgent need, visit a MercyCare Urgent Care clinic. MercyCare Urgent Care clinics are conveniently open nights and weekends with four locations in Cedar Rapids, Marion and North Liberty.

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