Skip to Main Content

Winter Burn Safety

This page contains burn safety information specifically centered around situations that occur during the winter months.


Frostbite occurs when the body is so cold that ice crystals form in the spaces surrounding body cells. Damage to tissue occurs as the cells freeze.  The areas most commonly affected by frostbite at the hands, feet, ears, nose and cheeks. As with burns, frostbite severity is measured in degrees (1st, 2nd and 3rd). All frostbite, regardless of severity, should be examined by a physician as soon as possible.  Prompt treatment increases chances for complete recovery.

How to Prevent Frostbite:

  • Keep your skin dry (wet skin freezes more rapidly) by dressing in layers of light rather than bulky, heavy clothing. Waffle weave and cotton clothing trap air, while polypropylene will absorb perspiration thus reducing heat loss.
  • Synthetic material provides better insulation in adverse conditions than down-filled garments, which are warm, but useless in wet conditions. Wool is also a good insulator, so choosing the appropriate clothes is essential.
  • Use a scarf or ski mask to protect your face.
  • Wear a hat or at least earmuffs to cover your ears. The greatest amount of heat loss is through the scalp. The skin and underlying tissues of the ears are very thin, so they are especially prone to frostbite.
  • Wear light cotton socks topped by wool or synthetic socks.
  • When buying boots, be sure they are high enough to cover your ankles, but not too tight to cut off the circulation to your feet.
  • Protect your hands with mittens rather than gloves to keep fingers warmer.
  • Avoid smoking (decreases circulation).
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages which increase the rate at which the body cools, impair judgment and sense of touch.

Symptoms of Frostbite: 

  • Tingling and burning are early symptoms and a warning to get out of the cold immediately. If this is not possible, move around vigorously to increase circulation.
  • The next stage is numbness. By this time, you probably have frostbite.
  • In the third stage, skin may appear pale or white and cold to the touch.
  • Finally, swelling, hemorrhage and blister may form after the skin thaws.

First Aid for Frostbite:

  • Do not rub the area, especially with snow. This will worsen the injury.
  • Do not use a frostbitten area or walk on frostbitten feet. If you must walk, the feet will suffer less damage if left frozen and padded.
  • Avoid thawing an area if you are far from help or if there is a chance of refreezing. This will cause more damage.
  • If you are in a permanent shelter and can thaw a frostbitten area: Immerse area for 20-45 minutes in lukewarm water. Hot water may burn the skin, causing more damage. As the area thaws, it will turn pink or bright red and sensation may return.
  • Do not put creams or salves on the frostbitten area.
  • Protect the area from refreezing and seek medical attention immediately. 


Hypothermia is defined as the accidental cooling of the core body temperature below 95°F. Exposure to cold, snow or ice can result in a general cooling of the body that can produce these symptoms:

  • Shivering
  • Stumbling
  • Apathy (feeling like you don't care).
  • Slow pulse, slow respirations leading to unconsciousness and possible coma.

Hypothermia requires medical attention as soon as possible. The principles of first aid are to prevent further heat loss, re-warm the body core and extremities and treat gently to avoid cardiac problems. First aid care should include:

  • Remove individual from adverse environment.
  • Keep individual dry, replacing wet clothing.
  • Monitor respirations and pulse.
  • Apply external heat to both sides of the body using whatever heat sources are available (including body heat of rescuers).
  • Drink hot liquids if possible.
  • Transport victim quickly and carefully. 

Holiday Safety

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 4,000 individuals are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries associated with holiday decorations. You can provide a safe environment by following these simple guidelines:

Natural Trees:  If you are planning to buy a natural tree, the most important safety factor is freshness. The higher the moisture content of the tree, the less likely it is to dry out and become a serious fire hazard. Fresh needles will bend between your fingers and will not break. Brittle branches and shedding needles are a sign of dryness.  Do not depend on color when purchasing a tree, it may have been sprayed to improve its appearance.  Trees should be placed in a sturdy, stable holder with a wide base and away from any heat source. Make sure to check the water level regularly and refill daily if necessary.

Artificial Trees:  Many artificial trees are fire resistant. This does not mean the tree will not burn, only that it will not catch fire easily. If you buy an artificial tree, look for a statement specifying the duration of this protection.  As with natural trees, keep artificial trees away from heat sources. Metal trees present no fire hazards alone, however they can be the source of serious shock if electric lights are attached. The safest way to illuminate a metal tree is to use colored floodlights placed in different areas of the room.

Lighting:  Inspect your indoor and outdoor lights each year and discard or repair any damaged sets. Tree lights should be fastened securely keeping bulbs free of direct contact with needles or branches. Curtains and other flammable materials should also be kept away from the bulbs. Extension cords should be used with no more than three sets of lights per cord and should remain clear from the tree's water supply. While wax candles may provide a sense of nostalgia, they should never be used on or near a tree. Make sure to unplug all lights when leaving your home or retiring for the evening. Remember to always disconnect electrical cords by grasping the plug, not by pulling on the cord.

Tree Ornaments & Trimmings:  Breakable ornaments or ornaments with small detachable parts should be placed where children or pets cannot reach them. Every year, many children are treated for cuts from broken ornaments or from swallowed ornament parts. Trimmings used on trees or around the house should be non-combustible or flame resistant.

Hazardous Substances:  Some traditional holiday decorations may be harmful if eaten. Mistletoe and holly berries may be poisonous if more than a few are swallowed. Use only tinsel or artificial icicles that do not contain lead.  Discard old tinsel if you are not sure of its composition. If any of these hazardous substances are consumed, call your physician or the South Dakota Poison Control Center at 1-800-764-7661.

Fireplaces:  Fireplaces should be inspected and chimneys cleaned yearly to remove creosote buildup. Nearly all chimney fires result from creosote catching on fire. Before starting a fire, remove all decorations from the area and be sure the flue is open. Keep a screen in front of the fireplace whenever a fire is burning. Dispose of wrapping or excess tree boughs immediately with your household trash. Do not burn them in the fireplace because they can burn suddenly and rapidly, throwing off sparks and burning debris.

Ready for Winter?

South Dakota winters can be brutal. Are you prepared for a winter storm? Here's what you can do before the storm strikes:

  • Purchase a tone-alert, battery-powered NOAA Weather radio. Weather radio is operated 24 hours a day by the National Weather Service and provides the latest, most accurate weather information available. The tone-alert NOAA Weather radio can be purchased at many electronic stores for a reasonable price.
  • Make sure you have a working flashlight at home, at work, and in your vehicle. Be sure to have extra batteries.
  • Fully check and winterize your vehicle before the winter season begins.
  • Keep your gas tank near full to avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines.
  • When traveling, let others know your timetable. Try not to travel alone.
  • Consider purchasing a cellular phone.
  • Carry a winter storm survival kit that includes: 2 tow chains or nylon cord, an axe, matches, cigarette lighter, candles, blanket or sleeping bag, flashlight with extra batteries, first-aid kit, distress flag, wind-up alarm clock, knife, high-calorie non-perishable food, extra clothing, facial or toilet tissue, sand or kitty litter, shovel, windshield scraper and deicer, booster cables and a tool kit. Winter survival kits ("Blizzard Bucket") can be purchased from the South Dakota Safety Council at (605) 361-7785 or 1-800-952-5539.

If you are caught in your vehicle during a winter storm:

  • Stay in your vehicle.
  • Run the motor for 10 minutes every hour, but open the windors a little to allow for proper ventilation. Make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked.
  • Make yourself visible to rescuers by turning on the dome light at night when running the engine. Also tie a red cloth to the antenna or door.
  • Exercise from time to time to keep the blood circulating and to keep warm.

Road Condition Information is available 24 hours a day by calling:

State Phone Number
South Dakota  (605) 367-5707 
Iowa (515) 288-1047 
Minnesota (800) 542-0220 
North Dakota  (701) 238-7623 
Nebraska  (402) 471-4533 
Wyoming  (307) 237-8411 
Kansas (913) 296-0701 
Montana (800) 332-6171 
Wisconsin (800) 762-3947 

What to do at home during a winter storm:

  • Stay inside. Make sure you provide proper ventilation when using alternate heat sources. If you have no heat, close off unneeded rooms and place towels under the doors.
  • Wear layers of loose-fitting, lightweight warm clothing.
  • Eat to supply heat and drink to avoid dehydration.

Additional Resources

Other resources for burn and season-specific safety, call ASK-A-NURSE for answers to you questions: 605-322-6877 or 1-800-658-3535.