Don’t let the relatively warm winter so far fool you – there’s plenty of winter left and cold weather is always just around the corner. By taking some simple precautions and being aware of the dangers posed by the cold you can protect yourself and your loved ones from hypothermia and frostbite.
If you or someone you care about must venture outdoors during extremely cold weather, dress in layers, avoiding materials such as cotton, which offers little protection from the cold and is actually dangerous when wet, whisking heat away from your body and speeding up the risk for hypothermia. Cover exposed skin to reduce your risk of frostbite or hypothermia. Try to seek shelter from the wind as much as possible while outside. Once inside again, change into dry clothing immediately if you are wet.
What is hypothermia?
Hypothermia is abnormally low body temperature and is caused by prolonged exposures to very cold temperatures, during which your body begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced. Lengthy exposures will eventually use up your body’s supply of stored energy, which leads to lower body temperature, affecting the brain and rendering you unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia especially dangerous, because a person may not know that it’s happening and won’t be able to do anything about it. While hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, wind, sweat, or submersion in cold water.
The following are warnings signs of hypothermia:
- Exhaustion or feeling very tired
- Fumbling hands
- Memory loss
- Slurred speech
- bright red, cold skin
- very low energy
What is frostbite?
Frostbite is a type of injury caused by freezing tissue. It leads to a loss of feeling and color in the areas it affects, usually extremities such as the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation of the affected body part. A person who has frostbite may not know they have it until someone else points it out because the frozen parts of their body are numb.
You may have a greater chance of developing frostbite if you:
- have poor blood circulation
- are not properly dressed for extremely cold temperatures
If you notice redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin—frostbite may be beginning. Any of the following signs may point to frostbite:
- A white or grayish-yellow skin area
- Skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
If you notice signs of frostbite on yourself or someone else, seek medical care. Check to see if the person is also showing signs of hypothermia. Hypothermia is a more serious condition and requires emergency medical care.
If a person shows signs of frostbite, but no signs of hypothermia and immediate medical care is not available, do the following:
- Get the person into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on feet or toes that show signs of frostbite—this increases the damage.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Put the areas affected by frostbite in warm—not hot—water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
- If warm water is not available, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, you can use the heat of an armpit to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can easily burn.
Don’t substitute these steps for proper medical care. Frostbite should be checked by a health care provider. And remember, hypothermia is a medical emergency and immediate medical care is necessary.
Cold does NOT cause a cold – viruses do
Did your mother or grandmother used to bundle you up, admonishing you to stay warm to avoid catching a cold? Her heart was in the right place, but her advice was wrong. Cold weather does NOT cause colds – viruses do, spread by sick individuals in close quarters with healthy ones.
Closed-up buildings and moist heating systems can encourage the growth and spread of viruses from person to person. The best way to protect yourself and your family is to wash your hands frequently, avoid coughing and sneezing on each other, eat healthy, drink lots of fluids, and get plenty of rest.
With flu cases on the rise, it’s important to isolate sick individuals to avoid spreading illness. There is still time to get vaccinated for the flu, but if you or a loved one is not feeling well, stay home. Going to school or work when sick is not being brave or smart – it simply makes things worse for others and prolongs illness.
For more information and treatment this cold and flu season, contact the health professionals here at Community Health Connections.