msnbc.com
updated 12/6/2006 5:48:46 PM ET 2006-12-06T22:48:46

The death of James Kim, the San Francisco man who became stranded with his family in Oregon's snowy backroads while returning from a Thanksgiving holiday, offers harsh lessons in winter weather safety.

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Kim had set off on foot to find help, while his wife and two daughters stayed with the car. They were rescued on Monday. Experts urge people to stay with their cars in such situations, for shelter and so they are easier for rescuers to locate.

While lost in the snow, Kim likely suffered hypothermia — rescuers found his pants the day before they found Kim's body. Severe hypothermia often causes people to become disoriented and have a false sense of warmth.

When exposed to cold temperatures, the body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. This robs the brain of the ability to think clearly and move efficiently. That's why hypothermia is so dangerous — victims may not even understand what is happening.

But understanding the risks of hypothermia can help you protect yourself and others:

How cold does it have to get?
Hypothermia occurs most commonly at freezing temperatures, but can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water.

Who's most at risk?
Victims of hypothermia are most often: elderly people with inadequate food, clothing or heating; babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; children left unattended; adults under the influence of alcohol; those with mental illnesses; and other people who remain outdoors for long periods — the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.

What are the warning signs?

  • Adults may show signs of shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness.
  • Infants usually have bright red, cold skin and seem lethargic.

What if you see the warning signs?
If you spot someone with the warning signs of hypothermia, take the person's temperature. If it is below 95 degrees, the situation is an emergency — get medical attention immediately. If medical care is not available, begin warming the person, as follows:

  • Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
  • If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it.
  • Warm the center of the body first — chest, neck, head and groin — using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels or sheets.
  • Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do NOT give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
  • After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
  • Get medical attention as soon as possible. A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately. Even if the victim appears dead, CPR should be provided. CPR should continue while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical aid becomes available.
  • In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.

What's the difference between hypothermia and frostbite?
Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. This causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation.

The warning signs are redness or pain in any skin area or a white or grayish-yellow skin area skin that feels unusually firm or waxy. A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.

What should you do if stranded in cold weather?

  • Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna as a signal to rescuers. Remain with the car.
  • Move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger area.
  • Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing, blankets or newspapers.
  • Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems.
  • Run the motor (and heater) for about 10 minutes per hour, opening one window slightly to let in air. Make sure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe — this will reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • As you sit, keep moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and stay warmer.
  • Do not eat unmelted snow because it will lower your body temperature.

What should you eat and drink in the cold?
Eating well-balanced meals will help you stay warmer. Do not drink alcoholic beverages — they cause your body to lose heat more rapidly. Instead, drink warm, sweet beverages such as hot chocolate to help maintain your body temperature. Do not eat unmelted snow because it will lower your body temperature.

Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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