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Hot and Cold: Extreme Temperature Safety

Overview

If you’re planning to travel outdoors, be prepared to deal with all sorts of weather. This might mean extremely rainy days or extremely dry days, and from the hottest daytime hours to the coldest nights.

The human body has a normal core temperature between 97˚F and 99˚F, but on average, a normal body temperature is 98.6˚F (37˚C). To maintain this temperature without the help of warming or cooling devices, the surrounding environment needs to be at about 82˚F (28˚C). Clothes aren’t just for looks — they’re necessary to keep warm. You can usually bundle up in more layers during colder months, and you can use fans or air conditioners in warmer months to maintain a healthy core temperature.

In some cases, you may find yourself in an environment with extreme temperatures. It’s crucial to know what health concerns you may face as well as how to avoid any temperature-related health problems.

Extreme heat temperatures

First, note that the temperature reading on a thermometer is not necessarily the temperature that you should be concerned about. The relative humidity in your environment can affect the temperature you actually feel, which is called the “apparent temperature.” Some example scenarios include:

  • If the air temperature reads 85˚F (29˚C), but there’s zero humidity, the temperature will actually feel like it’s 78˚F (26 ˚C).
  • If the air temperature reads 85˚F (29˚C), with 80 percent humidity, it will actually feel like 97˚F (36˚C).

High environmental temperatures can be dangerous to your body. In the range of 90˚ and 105˚F (32˚ and 40˚C), you can experience heat cramps and exhaustion. Between 105˚ and 130˚F (40˚ and 54˚C), heat exhaustion is more likely. You should limit your activities at this range. An environmental temperature over 130˚F (54˚C) often leads to heatstroke.

Other heat-related illnesses include:

  • heat exhaustion
  • heatstroke
  • muscle cramps
  • heat swelling
  • fainting

Symptoms

Symptoms of heat-related illness depend on the type and the severity of the illness.

Some common symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • sweating heavily
  • exhaustion or fatigue
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • blacking out or feeling dizzy when standing up
  • weak but fast pulse
  • feelings of nausea
  • vomiting

Symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • reddish skin that feels hot to the touch
  • strong and fast pulse
  • losing consciousness
  • internal body temperature over 103˚F (39˚C)

Treatment

If someone loses consciousness and shows one or more of the symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, call 911 right away.

To treat heat exhaustion, try to keep yourself cool with cold, damp cloths around your body and slowly take small sips of water until the symptoms begin to fade. Try to get out of the heat. Find some place with air conditioning or a lower temperature (especially out of direct sunlight). Rest on a couch or bed.

To treat heatstroke, cover yourself with cold, damp cloths or take a cold bath to normalize your body temperature. Get out of the heat immediately to a place with a lower temperature. Don’t drink anything until you (or the person experiencing heatstroke) receive medical attention.

Prevention

Stay well-hydrated to best avoid heat-related illness. Drink enough fluids so that your urine is light-colored or clear. Don’t rely solely on thirst as a guide to how much liquid you should be drinking. When you lose a lot of fluids or sweat profusely, be sure to replace electrolytes as well.

Wear clothing that is appropriate to your environment. Clothes that are too thick or too warm can quickly cause you to become overheated. If you feel yourself getting too hot, loosen your clothing or remove excess clothing until you feel cool enough. Wear sunscreen when possible to avoid sunburn, which makes it harder for your body to get rid of excess heat.

Try to avoid places that can get extremely hot, such as inside cars. Never leave another person, child, or pet, even for short periods of time.

Risk factors

Common risk factors that can cause you to be more susceptible to heat-related illness include:

  • being younger than 4 or older than 65
  • exposure to abrupt weather changes from cold to hot
  • being overweight or obese
  • taking medications such as diuretics and antihistamines
  • using illicit drugs such as cocaine
  • exposure to a high heat index (measurement of both heat and humidity)

Extreme cold temperatures

As with high temperatures, don’t rely solely on the thermometer reading of environmental air for gauging cold temperatures. The speed of the wind and external body moisture can cause a chill that dramatically changes your body’s rate of cooling and how you feel. In extremely cold weather, especially with a high wind chill factor, you can quickly experience the onset of hypothermia. Falling into cold water can also result in immersion hypothermia.

Some cold-related illnesses include:

  • hypothermia
  • frostbite
  • trench foot (or “immersion foot”)
  • chilblains
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon
  • cold-induced hives

In addition to these illnesses, winter weather can cause major inconveniences for travelers. Always be prepared to deal with heavy snow and extreme cold, whether you’re on the road or at home.

Symptoms

When your body first drops below 98.6˚F (37˚C), you may experience:

  • shivering
  • an increased heart rate
  • a slight decrease in coordination
  • an increased urge to urinate

When your body temperature is between 91.4˚ and 85.2˚F (33˚ and 30˚C), you’ll:

  • decrease or stop shivering
  • fall into a stupor
  • feel drowsy
  • be unable to walk
  • experience quick alternations between rapid heart rate and breathing too slowly
  • shallow breathing

Between 85.2˚ and 71.6˚F (30˚C and 22˚C), you’ll experience:

  • minimal breathing
  • poor to no reflexes
  • inability to move or respond to stimuli
  • low blood pressure
  • possibly coma

A body temperature below 71.6˚F (22˚C) can result in muscles becoming rigid, blood pressure becoming extremely low or even absent, heart and breathing rates decreasing, and it can ultimately lead to death.

Treatment

If someone passes out, shows multiple symptoms listed above, and has a body temperature of 95˚F (35˚C) or lower, call 911 immediately. Perform CPR if the person isn’t breathing or doesn’t have a pulse.

To treat hypothermia, get out of the cold as soon as possible and to a warmer environment. Remove any damp or wet clothing and start warming up the middle areas of your body, including your head, neck, and chest, with a heating pad or against the skin of someone with a normal body temperature. Drink something warm to gradually increase your body temperature, but don’t have anything alcoholic.

Even after you begin to feel warm again, stay dry and keep yourself wrapped up in a warm blanket. Seek medical help right away to minimize the harm to your body.

To treat frostbite, soak the affected area in warm water no hotter than 105˚F (40˚C) and wrap it in gauze. Keep any toes or fingers affected by frostbite separated from each other to avoid rubbing the areas against each other. Do not rub, use, or walk on frostbitten skin, as this can cause tissue damage. See your doctor if you still can’t feel anything on your frostbitten skin after 30 minutes.

Prevention

It’s essential to protect anyone experiencing early symptoms of hypothermia. If possible, remove them from the cold immediately. Don’t try to warm a person suffering from serious hypothermia with vigorous exercise or rubbing, as this can lead to further problems.

To prevent cold-related illness, take one or more of these measures when the temperature starts to drop:

  • eat substantial meals regularly and drink plenty of water
  • avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine
  • remain inside near a source of heat
  • wear a hat, beanie, or something similar on your head to retain heat and gloves or mittens on your hands
  • wear multiple layers of clothing
  • use lotion and lip balm to prevent dryness of your skin and lips
  • bring extra clothes to change into in case you get damp or wet
  • wear sunglasses when it’s snowing or extremely bright outside to avoid snow blindness

Risk factors

Common risk factors for hypothermia and frostbite include:

  • being younger than 4 or older than 65
  • consuming alcohol, caffeine, or tobacco
  • being dehydrated
  • exposing skin to extremely cold temperatures, especially when exercising and sweating
  • becoming damp or wet in cold temperatures

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