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Know the signs of a cold-related emergency, and how to help

What would winter be without outdoor fun like skiing, skating, ice fishing, sledding, or snowmobiling? Spending time outside is a big part of many Canadians’ winters, but there is need for precautions to make sure everyone stays warm and avoids a cold-related emergency.

What’s a cold-related emergency? When a person is exposed to cold temperatures it can cause their body temperature to decrease.

Hypothermia, one type of emergency, can happen to anyone exposed to cold too long and can be life threatening. Signs of hypothermia include:
  • Mild: Shivering and complaining of cold, numbness in fingers and toes, body temperature is slightly below normal
  • Moderate: Shivering, numbness in fingers and toes, lack of coordination and/or speech, confused or unusual behaviour, impaired judgement
  • Severe: Person has stopped shivering and complaining of cold, lack of coordination and/or speech, confused or unusual behaviour, glassy stare, breathing has slowed or stopped, possible unconsciousness, body temperature is below 30°C
Frostbite is a serious condition that happens when body tissues freeze. It most commonly happens in the fingers, toes, ears and nose.  It often starts as skin that is paler than usual, and then progresses to a white waxy appearance.

How to help someone experiencing a cold-related emergency:
  • Call 911 for severe hypothermia
  • Get the person away from the cold and into shelter
  • Monitor breathing carefully
  • Remove any wet clothing and gently dry the person
  • Warm the person by wrapping them in blankets or putting on dry clothing. Cover the head and neck. Warm the person slowly
  • If available, hot water bottles or heating pads can be placed under armpits and around the groin and back of neck to help warm the person. Be careful not to burn these areas. 
  • Do not rub areas affected by frostbite
  • If the person is alert, give them sips of warm liquids
  • Active re-warming such as hot baths should only be used when the person is far from a medical facility
Always check the local weather report before heading out and stay inside during severe cold warnings. If you must go out, be sure to cover all exposed skin to avoid frostbite. Frostbite can occur very quickly depending on the wind chill.

Looking for more winter safety tips? Find out about dressing for the cold, winter storms and ice safety
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