Hesperian Health Guides

Cold Emergencies

Hypothermia, getting too cold

Being too cold for too long can be deadly. It can quickly cause confusion, affect judgment and make it harder to think clearly about how to get warm.

  • Shivering
  • Fast breathing and heart rate
  • Difficulty speaking clearly, clumsiness
  • Confusion
  • Having to urinate more

As hypothermia gets worse, the pulse and breathing may slow down. The person may sit down, stop shivering, and in her confusion may start to take off clothes. Eventually she can pass out or die.


Give rescue breathing if needed. A very cold person can recover after a long time of not breathing, so you may need to give rescue breathing for an hour or more.

  • Get somewhere warm and dry.
  • Remove wet clothes.
  • Cover in warm, dry blankets. Be sure to cover head, hands,
    and feet.
  • Do all you can to keep the person warm. Cuddle up close to the person, heat stones and then wrap them in cloth, or use hot water bottles to warm the person. But beware of burning the skin.
a person being treated for hypothermia.
Dry clothes, blankets, and a hat
Body heat (or hot stones, or hot water bottles)
Warm, sweet drinks
Folded blankets or cardboard
protect from the cold ground

If the person can sit up and hold a cup, give warm drinks. Do not give alcoholic drinks. While they may feel “hot” in your throat or stomach, alcoholic drinks cause the body to lose heat. Also give food. Candy and sweets are especially helpful. Give a meal soon after. Encourage the person to drink plenty of water.

If the person has severe hypothermia—a body temperature of 32° C (90°F) or less, is unconscious, not shivering anymore—be as gentle as you can while quickly transporting her to help.

Frostbite (frozen body parts)

Toes, fingers, ears, and other body parts can freeze. Eventually they “die,” turning black. If you act fast at the first signs of frostbite, you can save these body parts that otherwise might need to be cut off.


  • Skin cold, waxy, pale, splotchy
  • Tingling, numbness, or pain
  • The body part may be frozen hard

Light, mild frostbite turns the skin red. A few days later it peels. If it is a bit deeper, frostbite leaves the skin feeling hard, but soft underneath. Blisters may form the next day. When the muscle freezes, the frostbite is deep. The area is hard. It may blister only at the edges, or not at all. The blisters may fill with blood.


a woman with arms crossed and hands inside her shirt.

Get out of the cold and quickly warm the frozen part. For fingers, the easiest thing is for the person to hold her hands in her own armpits or between her thighs. Or wrap the frozen parts in warm, dry cloths. Keep the frozen area still and try not to walk on frostbitten feet.

For deeper frostbite, fill a basin with warm (not hot) water. If you have a thermometer, try for 39° C (102°F.) Soak the frozen part in the water. Check the water first to prevent burns. Do not rub.

The frozen part should thaw within 45 minutes. As it warms, it will hurt. Give pain medicine. Do not let it become frozen again.

It is better to let the area stay frozen
than to thaw it and let it freeze again.

As frostbite heals over the coming days and weeks, treat it as you would a burn.

an Aloe vera plant.
Aloe helps heal frostbite
and burns.

This page was updated:05 Feb 2020