Cold Weather Safety

Written by Linda Hepler, RN | Published on July 17, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on July 17, 2014

Cold Weather Safety

Winter weather brings a variety of recreational opportunities. While it can be fun to play and explore in the cold, extreme low temperatures can cause potentially life-threatening health problems. This is especially true for infants and elderly people who lose body heat more quickly than others.

Two of the most common cold-related medical problems are hypothermia and frostbite. 

Hypothermia

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 extreme cold conditions, you might also be at risk in temperatures above 40ºF if you are wet from sweat or precipitation.

Hypothermia affects your brain and can cause confusion. You may not even realize you are overly chilled. Other symptoms of hypothermia include 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, a person experiencing hypothermia should be taken into a warm place or shelter. Wet clothing needs to be removed and warm, dry clothing and/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

Frostbite can also occur in cold temperatures, especially if you are improperly dressed, or if you have problems with circulation. Frostbite occurs when a body part freezes. It most often occurs in uncovered or poorly covered areas, such as the fingers, toes, nose, ears, or cheeks. A person who is frostbitten may develop white spots on the skin of the infected area. The skin may also feel numb and painful. Frostbite can be treated by slowly thawing the area in warm (but not hot) water. You can also use body heat; for example, placing frostbitten fingers into the armpit. Medical care should be sought as soon as possible.

How to Stay Safe in Extreme Cold

  • Pay attention to the weather. When there are high and steady winds, you can lose heat from your body more quickly.
  • Dress in several layers of loose clothing. Inner layers should be able to trap body heat, yet allow the skin to breathe. Wear thermal underwear made of silk, wool, or polypropylene. These are the best materials to capture heat and wick away moisture from your skin. 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. Exertion adds the workload of staying warm and can strain your 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 (and even while outside), as they can cause your body to lose heat more rapidly. Eat a healthy snack and drink a warm beverage, such as warm tea or broth. This can 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 your destination, when you expect to arrive, and the route you will take.
  • Make sure you have an emergency kit for your car. It should include blankets, a first aid kit, waterproof matches, a candle, windshield scraper, booster cables, tool kit, bag of sand or cat litter to pour onto ice for traction, collapsible shovel, flashlight, and can of compressed air. If you become stranded, it is best to stay in your vehicle if visibility is poor.
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