How Long Does It Take To Get Frostbite Or Hypothermia?
Living in Northern Minnesota or Northern Wisconsin, we hear a lot about "dangerous wind chills" and how frostbite can happen quickly as temperatures drop. It's pretty amazing how quickly it can happen during the coldest days of winter, which is why every radio and TV station stresses the importance of safety when temperatures and wind chills reach a certain point. Along with that threat of frostbite when it gets cold, hypothermia is also a dangerous condition to be aware of. Here is what to know about each, and how to prevent them.
The Mayo Clinic explains that frostbite is "an injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. First your skin becomes very cold and red, then numb, hard and pale." This process can happen at any temperature below the freezing point of 32 degrees F, and can be accelerated by wind and as temperatures get colder. Meteorologists and scientists are able to offer an approximate amount of time within which frostbite can occur on exposed skin because the variables are relatively few, and tend to be pretty universal for most people. This science is the basis behind the chart below.
While most people think of frostbite in its most severe form with skin turning white or bluish-gray accompanied by numbness or losing sensation, the Mayo Clinic explains that frostnip and superficial frostbite are also conditions to be aware of. Frostnip is described as a mild form of frostbite, usually with the symptom of numbness. This does not permanently damage the skin, but it is the first sign of developing a more serious condition. Superficial frostbite is describes as the next stage of frostbite, with symptoms including reddened skin that turns white or pale. Skin may begin to feel warm, which is a sign of more serious damage. Stinging, burning, and swelling may also occur. Blisters are possible within 12-36 hours after warming the skin. If you experience frostbite, you should see medical attention immediately.
In this chart, you can see how temperature and wind are related to how quickly frostbite can occur. The National Weather Service says wind chill advisories and warnings are designated by local offices, and have no specific nationwide criteria.
A wind chill advisory is the less severe of the two alerts, implying that there are hazardous wind chills possible that could cause frostbite or hypothermia if proper precautions are not taken. They are described as "when the combination of wind and cold air create very cold wind chills. Frostbite and hypothermia, which can lead to death, can occur if steps are not taken to protect yourself.
A wind chill warning is the more severe of the two alerts, issued in instances of dangerous wind chills that can cause frostbite or hypothermia in a very short period of time. They are described as "when the combination of wind and very cold air create dangerous wind chills. Hypothermia can set in quickly, which may lead to death, and frostbite can develop within minutes."
The best preventative measure is to prevent exposure by covering skin and maintaining skin temperatures with warm clothing. It is important to know that it is still possible to get frostbite on unexposed skin, if the skin is still allowed to get cold. This is why insulation and layers are important if you must venture out into cold temperatures. There is no chart for unexposed skin, but wearing insulation and layers, as well as reducing exposure can help you avoid frostbite.
The National Weather Service does point out that while frostbite is not a concern above the freezing point, hypothermia is possible at temperatures well above freezing. This occurs as the body loses heat and is unable to retain a normal body temperature. The University of Michigan's online health library explains that hypothermia is possible at temperatures as warm as 50 to 60 degrees (or any temperature colder than the body's normal temperature) if the body is unable to maintain a normal body temperature. There isn't a clean-cut hypothermia prediction weather chart like the one above for wind chills and frostbite because there are more variables.
Signs of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, slow or shallow breathing, weak pulse, clumsiness, confusion, drowsiness, or a handful of other conditions detailed by the Mayo Clinic. Someone experiencing hypothermia often doesn't know they are experiencing these symptoms, as onset is usually gradual. If you or someone you're with is experiencing hypothermia, seek medical attention immediately.
The body can lose heat by radiating it into air colder than normal body temperature, being in direct contact with something cold (such as water or a cold surface), or through wind carrying away heat from your body.The best prevention for hypothermia is to avoid exposure to these conditions. Wearing layers and insulation that create a barrier between your body and the cold, as well as limiting time outdoors during extreme cold, are key preventative tactics.
Being hypothermia is related to an overall lowering of body temperature, even someone dressed in warm clothing with layers could still be susceptible to hypothermia. Being exposed to cold water, even while dressed very warmly, can lead to a quick loss in body temperature, and is the fastest way someone could develop hypothermia under common conditions. This is because the insulation offered by warm clothing is circumvented as cold water comes into contact with skin and draws heat away from the body at a rapid rate. Water is more efficient than air at carrying heat away from the body, which means it takes less time to develop hypothermia from exposure to water.
Extreme cold air temperatures don't act as quickly to cause hypothermia for people dressed for the conditions. Proper layers and insulation can preserve the body's heat by creating a barrier that keeps the cold out and slows the loss of body heat.
Even being dressed for the conditions with lots of insulation and layers between your body and the cold, there is still a chance you could develop hypothermia. The longer you are outside in extreme cold, the more potential your body has to lose even small amounts of body heat, which can lead to hypothermia. As the Mayo Clinic points out, hypothermia occurs as your body's temperature falls below 95 degrees, which is only a few degrees below the normal body temperature of 98.6.
When cold weather comes into town, take it seriously and take preventative measures to keep yourself, as well as your loved ones and pets safe.