Keeping Safe in Cold Weather

01/21/2014

Mother Nature has once again given us the "cold shoulder." In fact, this year’s artic freeze has been so cold that on several days the wind chill has been less than zero degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to cause frostbite within five minutes on unprotected skin. Needless to say, it is important to know how to protect yourself from the dangers of this cold weather season.

Cold Weather Warning Signs iStock/Thinkstock

If you notice your skin looking mottled, pale and are experiencing pins and needles in your hands, feet, nose, ears or cheeks, then you are in the beginning phase of cold weather danger. This first alert is called frost nip, and is completely reversible if you act quickly and get into a warm room or shelter.

If you try to "tough it out" and ignore the warning signs of frost nip, there is a strong chance of developing frostbite. This is where tiny ice crystals start to form in your skin tissue. In many cases and with the proper care recovery from frostbite is usually complete. However, you must act quickly.

Key Clues

If you’re worried that you may have developed frost bite, it is important to be on the look-out for certain key symtpoms:

  • a tiny white dot on the nose or on the tip of one or more fingers
  • skin discoloration that appears pale or gray in dark skinned individuals, and in those who are fair skinned, yellow or white
  • numbness in the cold affected area
  • itching, burning or a real sharp pain

If you experience any of the above symptoms, it is important to get the proper first aid. If the early cold weather injury signs of frost nip and frostbite are totally ignored, then a condition known as hypothermia may result.

Hypothermia causes the "Umbles"

Hypothermia occurs when a person's core body temperature decreases to a level below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, where normal muscular and brain operations are impaired. This is a medical emergency and a potential killer. If you’re concerned that a loved one may have developed hypothermia than it is important to look out for the “Umbles” -- you know, when a person mumbles, stumbles, fumbles and grumbles. 

These "umbles" can occur when a person is showing the signs of hypothermia. Picture someone outside on a cold windy winter day who has trouble holding onto objects, is speaking with a slight slur, is having uncontrolled shivering and does not seem to be thinking straight, sort of like they are in a fog. If you see a person acting like this, get them inside into a warm environment.  If they do not improve in a short time, call your physician or go to the closest emergency room.

Who is at Risk?

The very young and the elderly are at an increased risk, but so are people with medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.  Also, certain medications can increase one's risk of getting this cold weather-related illness because they interfere with our body's own heat regulation system (ask your doctor about this if you’re concerned).

Additionally, people whose occupation keeps them outdoors or in cold environments have an increased risk. Even if you are outside taking a walk or exercising, you must be aware of the signs and symptoms of hypothermia.

Protect Yourself

When you are exposed to this type of environment, the first line of defense is to wear comfortable and dry clothing. If your clothing gets wet, it is difficult for your body to maintain its normal temperature. For people who work or exercise in cold environments, wear clothing made of polypropylene next to your body as this material will wick away the perspiration and keep your body dry. Next, dress in layers and wear clothes that are loose fitting. One big and large coat over a tee shirt will not be very helpful.


Dr. Rob believes in preventative and integrative approaches to medicine. He specializes in family medicine as well as children's health and wellness.
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