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We may be close to the end of winter, but you can't count on the weather to be predictable. As we've seen recently, extremely cold temperatures can occur even this far into the season. Even mild temperatures in the right conditions can cause dangers, but the kind of extreme cold witnessed lately is a reminder of how threatening weather can be. It helps to understand how the cold weather affects your body, and how to avoid and treat common conditions that inclement weather can bring about.
Frostbite is a condition that causes damage to body parts that have been exposed to cold for too long a period. This is typically treatable, but more serious cases can result in permanent tissue damage. It's most common in the extremities: fingers, toes, ears and noses. When your body loses heat, your blood vessels constrict, diverting blood flow away from extremities and toward your core in order to maintain its temperature. This lack of blood flow can damage the skin.
The rate at which frostbite can set in varies by temperature and weather condition. Higher altitudes as well as wind can increase your risk. When windchill temperatures decrease below zero degrees Fahrenheit, it can occur startlingly fast. The -40 to -50 degree temperatures that the Midwest saw recently can lead to frostbite in under 10 minutes!
Symptoms: Frostbite occurs in specific stages that have noticeable visual and sensory symptoms:
Treating Frostbite: Treatments are based the severity of the condition. More advanced cases may require professional and even surgical intervention.
Hypothermia is a condition resulting from an abnormally low body temperature, typically below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (average body temperature is around 98.6 degrees). This causes your heart, nervous system, and other organs to lose functionality and eventually shut down. When your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, hypothermia can set in, and this typically occurs during prolonged exposure to cold weather or cold water. This doesn't always occur in extreme cold! For very young or very old people, this can happen even in 60 degree homes.
90% of heat loss occurs through the skin, and windchill exacerbates this by removing the layer of warm air around the skin. Exposure to cold water is also potentially dangerous, as it can cool the body at a rate 25 times faster than air of the same temperature. Other risk factors tend to be more varied than frostbite:
Symptoms: Hypothermia symptoms can set in gradually, which can make them hard to spot, especially in cases of impaired judgment. The most obvious one is shivering, part of the body's attempt to control its temperature. Others include:
Hypothermia is diagnosed by body heat. Although temperatures may differ by individual, basic guidelines are:
Although impaired judgment can lead to hypothermia, it can also stem from it: brain activity slows as a result of heat loss.
Complications can include frostbite, or in more severe cases gangrene, a loss of blood flow that results in dead tissue.
Treating Hypothermia: Hypothermia is a medical emergency and warrants emergency response. But while waiting for medical professionals, there are steps you can take:
There's no need to treat frostbite or hypothermia if you make sure to protect yourself and your loved ones. The acronym COLD is a great place to start!
These are great basic guidelines, but specific situations or people may need more attention. As we discussed above, very young or very old people, people on certain medications, or people with impaired judgment require more protection. Make sure children playing outside come in frequently, and that children and infants dress in at least one more layer than an adult would in the same weather!
Older people or people with few resources may need extra attention as well. If you're concerned for a vulnerable person, contact your local public health office. They can provide services such as heating bill assistance, check-in services, homeless shelters, or community warming centers.
Take extra precautions when driving! Accidents or car troubles in cold weather can lead to the right conditions for hypothermia. Even though we're all carrying our phones with us, it helps to make sure someone knows where you're going and when you'll arrive. And you should always have emergency supplies in the event you're stranded, including blankets, a first-aid kit, matches, candles, water, dry or canned food, a can opener, a tow rope, booster cables, and a bag of sand or kitty litter for traction in the snow.
Please consult with your doctor or other qualified health care professional before taking any medication, supplement, or beginning any health regimen.