Whenever two extremes are presented, people naturally gravitate towards making comparisons. Is extreme hunger or extreme thirst worse? What about high and low blood pressure?
This is natural behaviour as it allows people to compartmentalise and rationalise certain things. Our latest comparison is between hypothermia and severe burns.
When comparing these two conditions, which is worse? Which would have people experience the most pain and discomfort?
Make yourself comfortable and ensure that the temperature is just right as we look at whether extreme cold or extreme burns are worse.
Before we get into the comparisons though, let’s clarify what each of these conditions means.
This is a condition brought about by exposure to extremely cold temperatures. This can either be through immersion in cold water or being exposed to cold air for long periods of time.
The main symptom is an uncontrolled drop in body temperature. When left untreated, extreme cold can lead to complete failure of the heart and respiratory system and eventually, death.
A person’s core body temperature is normally around 37°C. When it drops below 35°C, this condition sets in. Severe versions of the extreme cold occur when the core body temperature falls below 32°C.
There are three stages that go mild, moderate, and severe.
A person experiences a mild version of this condition when their core body temperature is between 32 and 35°C. The person may have some shivering and cold skin but is still able to think and move normally.
At this stage, it is treatable and reversible.
Moderate versions of this condition occur when the core body temperature falls below 32°C but above 28°C. The person may have more widespread shivering, numbness in the extremities, clumsy movements, slurred speech, and drowsiness.
The severe version of this condition happens when the core body temperature drops below 28°C. This is a life-threatening condition as the person may have little to no shivering, blue skin, dilated pupils, slow heartbeat, and slow, shallow breathing. The person may also become unresponsive and comatose.
The main cause is exposure to cold temperatures, as mentioned earlier. This can either be from being in cold water or from spending extended periods of time outdoors in cold weather. Other causes include:
- Wearing clothes that are wet or not enough clothing to protect against the cold
- Being elderly and unable to generate enough body heat
- Having a medical condition that affects the ability to regulate body temperature such as hypothyroidism
- Taking certain medications such as beta-blockers
- Drinking alcohol
If a person has been exposed to the extreme cold, it is important to seek medical attention immediately as it is a life-threatening condition.
Stop Heat Loss
The first thing that needs to be done is to stop the heat loss. This can be done by moving the person out of the cold environment and into a warm one. If they are wet, remove any wet clothing and replace it with dry clothes or blankets.
Warming the person up gradually is important as warming them up too quickly can cause shock or heart failure. This can be done by using warm compresses on the head, neck, chest, and groin area. You can also give the person warm drinks but avoid giving them alcohol as this can cause further heat loss.
If the person is showing signs of moderate to severe versions of this condition, they will need to be taken to the hospital for further treatment. This may include warm intravenous fluids, breathing assistance, and heart monitoring.
Defining Severe Burns
A burn is a damage to the skin or other tissues caused by heat, electricity, chemicals, friction, or radiation. This is defined as any burn that involves more than just the top layer of skin (epidermis).
These burns can range from 2nd to 3rd-degree burns and can cause significant damage to the skin and underlying tissue. Second-degree burns are partial thickness burns that involve the epidermis and part of the dermis.
These burns are usually painful and can cause swelling, blistering, and discolouration of the skin.
Third-degree burns are full thickness burns that involve the epidermis and all of the dermis. These burns can destroy nerve endings, so the person may not feel any pain.
There are many potential causes of extreme burns, but some of the most common include:
- Hot liquids
Extreme burns require immediate medical attention as they can be life-threatening.
Stop the Burning
The first step is to stop the burning process by removing the person from the source of the burn and cooling the affected area with cool water for 10-15 minutes. Do not use ice as this can cause further damage.
Once the burning has stopped, cover the area with a clean, dry cloth. If clothing is stuck to the skin, do not try to remove it as this can cause further damage.
This will require medical attention, so call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. The person will likely need to be hospitalised for treatment which may include:
- Intravenous fluids
- Pain medication
- Skin grafts
Is Hypothermia or Severe Burns Worse?
Some people may think that it is all dependent on preference. Just like some people hold a preference for cats and dogs, they must also prefer cold and hot temperatures.
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. This question must be approached in terms of degrees and circumstances.
A Question of Degrees
The big difference between the extreme hot and cold conditions is in the degrees at which people can experience them. People can experience mild versions when exposed to the cold. While there are stages of burns, even the mildest stage is still “severe”.
In addition, the recovery time for each is radically different. Whether mild to severe, extreme cold can be recovered from in a manner of hours to a few days.
Burns on the other hand can last a whole year to a year and a half.
Finally, the treatment for prolonged exposure to the cold is just to get one’s body temperatures back up. For severe bouts of heat and burning though, it always requires hospitalisation.
An Exception For the Cold
The only time the cold can be worse than heavy burns is if it is accompanied by frostbite. This is when the skin and tissues become frozen. The affected parts of the body will eventually lose feeling and become useless. If it continues, it can introduce blood clots to the body that can prove fatal.
It must be noted though that being exposed to the cold and frostbite are two different conditions. The latter does not automatically come with the former.
A Caveat of Care
Despite severe burns being a little bit more serious than hypothermia, a caveat must be made. With the comparisons aside, both of these conditions are very serious to people. The lack of immediate and competent care for both will ultimately result in death.
That is why when any of these happens, all comparisons go out the window and providing sufficient care is the only thing that remains.
You can do your part when a person is experiencing extreme heat or cold by learning the relevant first aid practices that will help them recover and survive.
Learn more about these practices by taking CPR First Aid’s Liverpool course today.