Cold truths about hypothermia

111960627Every Minnesotan is familiar with piling on coats, hats, mittens and other clothing to stay protected from the elements during the winter months. Hypothermia — literally meaning “low (body) temperature” —  occurs when too much heat escapes the core of the body and cannot be replaced quickly enough. It can affect someone’s mental and physical abilities and eventually be fatal if not treated. Hypothermia sets in very slowly, so those affected often do not realize they need help or medical attention. 

No one plans to become hypothermic; car trouble, walking home from a party, or a slip and fall on the ice are just a few ways people inadvertently get over-exposed to the harsh cold.

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Don’t get “burned” by frostbite!

Every year, the Burn Center at HCMC admits approximately 20-30 patients for treatment of frostbite.

Burn surgeons take care of injuries from extreme temperatures — both hot and cold.  Dr. Anne Lambert answers some general questions about frostbite.

What causes frostbite?

“Depending on how quickly the person gets cold, there are ice crystals forming within and around their cells, not unlike putting a piece of meat in the freezer,” explains burn surgeon Dr. Anne Lambert. “With the ice crystals forming, it decreases the blood flow and literally at some point stops the blood flow to certain points of the extremities.”

What body parts are most vulnerable to frostbite? 

“Just like everything else, our body tries to preserve the heat for its important parts, like the brain and other internal organs, so during cold temperatures, the blood vessels start to get smaller, decreasing blood flow to the distant parts of the body — like noses, ears, fingers and toes.  While these areas are the most likely body parts to be affected by frostbite, we’ve had people come in with their entire arm or leg frozen as well.”