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Jack Frost doesn't nip — he bites
(2-26-02)

Frostbite and hypothermia threaten South Texans; EMTs have tips to stay safe

Jack Frost will bring freezing temperatures and record lows to South Texas tonight, so if you have to be outside, beware. Emergency medical technicians at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) say the weather is more than uncomfortable — it's dangerous. Temperatures below freezing can lead to frostbite and hypothermia if people don't take proper precautions.

Frostbite occurs when skin tissue and blood vessels are damaged from exposure to the cold. "Blood pulls away from the skin, toward the core of the body. It is the body's way of trying to keep warm," said Vicky Smith, a clinical instructor in the department of emergency medical technology. "Frostbite presents itself like white blanched skin. You shouldn't rub it. You should get out of the cold, and let the affected area warm up on its own."

Smith said if the area blisters, doesn't return to normal color or is painful, victims should seek immediate medical treatment. Areas with the least fat, like fingers, toes, earlobes and the nose are most at risk for frostbite.

Smith also warns South Texans to be wary of hypothermia — a potentially deadly condition that occurs when the body temperature drops below 97 degrees Fahrenheit. "If you are shivering in reaction to the cold, your body is still working," Smith said. "Shivering stops at 92 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point, victims have an altered state of consciousness and get sleepy."

Again, Smith said victims should get out of the cold and let the body gradually warm up on its own. "Give victims something hot to drink — but absolutely no alcohol and don't let them smoke," Smith said. "Alcohol and tobacco work as dilators, opening the body's 'windows' to let heat out."

The best way to prevent both frostbite and hypothermia is to stay out of the cold for long periods of time and dress in layers. "But cotton kills," Smith said. "It has no thermal value of any kind. The best layers are LYCRA® and silk because they bounce heat back to the body. Wool is perfect."

As another rule of thumb, adult should dress their children with one more layer than they themselves wear. Everyone should wear a hat.

Contact: Amanda Gallagher or Aileen Salinas