Baby, it’s cold outside!
Most of the headlines over the last few days have focused on the arctic “cyclone” and brutally cold temperatures affecting a big chunk of the US.
Low temperature records are being shattered. Many states are reporting wind chills of -30°F or less.
That’s not just cold—that’s life threatening.
Outside my house, in Seattle, the weather is a pretty seasonal 40°F. And rainy. Lucky us.
But anyone struggling with these super cold temperatures needs to take care. Here are a few tips for avoiding, recognizing and dealing with hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia, or low body temperature, occurs from exposure to a cold environment (water or air). As your body’s temperature cools, your nervous system and circulatory system don’t function properly. Prolonged hypothermia can lead to death, usually from cardiac arrest.
Prevent hypothermia by staying indoors during extreme weather, dressing properly in layers of lightweight, water-repellent clothing, and avoiding heavy outdoor activities (such as shoveling snow) that will cause you to sweat and lose more body heat.
Also, young children and the elderly are more susceptible to cold-related illnesses. Make sure kids are appropriately dressed. Check on elderly neighbors or family members to see if they are warm enough and their homes are heating properly. Power outages are not uncommon in extreme weather!
And the AAA advises keeping your car equipped with blankets, food and water just in case it breaks down while traveling in cold weather.
Symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Shivering; Not just the “Brrr, I’m cold” kind of shivering, but violent, body-shaking, jaw-chattering shivers. Shivering is the body’s attempt to warm up.
- Lack of coordination
- Confusion, agitation; The affected person might try to throw off a blanket or take off their clothes.
- Rapid pulse
- Loss of consciousness
Call 911 if you and/or the person you are trying to help are in a dangerous situation, such as someone fell through ice into water, or if the person with hypothermia is unconscious or losing consciousness.
To treat mild hypothermia:
- Move the person into a warm, dry environment.
- Remove wet clothes; Cut them off, if you have to.
- Wrap the person in warm blankets or put on dry clothes; make sure to cover his or her head, too.
- Provide a warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverage; but only if the person is alert. And not a hot drink, because shivering or lack of coordination might cause a spill and a burn!
- Warm the person gradually; Rapid re-warming can shock the body and cause heart problems, so don’t put a hypothermic person into a hot bath straight away! A hot water bottle or a warm rice bag held against the chest or groin—not the hands or feet—will help bring up the patient’s core temperature slowly.
- Seek medical advice for anything other than mild hypothermia.
When you lose circulation to a body part and it freezes, it’s called frostbite. Toes, fingers, ears and the nose are especially vulnerable.
Symptoms of frostbite include:
- Discoloration of the affected part; blue, white, yellow. In extreme cases, you might see ice crystals, or the skin will be black.
- Pain initially, then numbness
To treat frostbite:
- Very gently place the affected part in warm—not hot—water. A sink or a basin of water can be used for feet and hands; for nose or ears, use a cloth soaked in warm water.
- Frostbitten skin is fragile, so avoid vigorous rubbing! This might sound like a good way to get the blood flowing again, but it can actually cause more damage.
- Don’t break blisters. This can lead to infection.
- Seek medical attention. After gradual warming of the body part, call a doctor or go to an urgent care clinic to make sure there is no permanent damage.
Sláinte, and stay warm!