Winter weather brings a variety of recreational opportunities, not to mention chores such as snow shoveling! But while it can be fun to play outdoors in the cold, extremely low temperatures can cause life-threatening health problems, especially for infants and elderly persons, who lose body heat more quickly than others.
Two of the most common cold-related medical problems are hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature (below 95ºF) that results from prolonged exposure to cold weather. While it is most likely to occur in extremely cold conditions, it can occur even in cool weather (above 40ºF) if you're wet from sweat or precipitation. Hypothermia affects the brain, so you can become confused. You may not even realize that you're overly chilled. Other symptoms of hypothermia are drowsiness, shivering, and exhaustion. A person with hypothermia may even become unconscious and stop breathing.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If immediate medical care is not available, the victim should be taken into a warm place or shelter, where the clothing needs to be removed and warm, dry clothing or blankets applied. If the person is conscious, then warm, non-alcoholic beverages can be given to raise the body temperature. Medical help should be sought as soon as possible.
Frostbite can also occur in cold temperatures, especially if you're improperly dressed or if you have problems with circulation. Frostbite is caused by freezing of a body part, most often of the fingers, toes, nose, ears, or cheeks. A person who is frostbitten may develop white spots on the affected skin. The skin may also feel numb and painful. Frostbite is treated by thawing the area slowly in warm (not hot) water or with body heat (placing frostbitten fingers into the armpit, for example). Medical care should be sought as soon as possible.
How to stay safe when it's extremely cold outside:
- Pay attention to the weather. When it's very windy outdoors, you can lose heat from your body more quickly. Stay indoors if at all possible.
- Dress in several layers of loose clothing if you must go outside. Inner layers should be able to trap body heat yet allow the skin to breathe. Thermal underwear made of silk, wool, or polypropylene are better at capturing heat and wicking moisture away from your skin than cotton. The outer layer of clothing should be wind resistant to reduce the loss of body heat due to wind.
- Don't forget waterproof boots, a hat, gloves or mittens, and a scarf or mask to cover your nose and mouth.
- Skip the heavy outdoor chores if you have a heart condition or high blood pressure. Your body works hard just to stay warm in the cold weather; exertion adds to this workload and can strain the heart.
- Consider using cleats that slip over your shoes or boots for extra traction on hard-packed snow or ice.
- Avoid alcoholic beverages prior to going outdoors (or while outside), as they can cause your body to lose heat more rapidly. Eat a healthy snack and drink warm tea or broth to help maintain your body temperature in the cold air.
- Listen to the weather report for travel advisories, and avoid unnecessary travel during bad weather. If you must travel by car, make sure to tell someone where you are going, when you expect to arrive, and the route you'll be taking. Make sure you have an emergency kit for the car (see Emergency Kit for the Car). If you become stranded, it's best to stay in your vehicle if visibility is poor.