Dealing with the deep freeze

January 23, 2014
Dealing with the deep freeze
Doctors offer advice on ways to stay safe and warm during frigid weather.

(HealthDay)—As another blast of Arctic air sends millions of Americans into a prolonged deep freeze, doctors are offering advice on dealing with dangerously frigid temperatures.

"It's best to limit your outdoor activity as much as possible, since prolonged exposure can lead to and hypothermia," Dr. John Marshall, chair of emergency medicine at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City, told HealthDay. "Both of these conditions can become serious, and even life-threatening, if untreated."

On Wednesday, sub-freezing temperatures stretched as far south as Texas. But the end is not near: By early next week, many regions of the United States will see temperatures plunge for a third time this winter, falling 15 to 30 degrees below normal, The Weather Channel reported.

And more snow is expected in some parts of the Midwest, Northeast and mid-Atlantic region in the coming days, the weather service added.

When temperatures drop low, there are many simple safeguards you can take to prevent severe injury, Marshall said.

They include:

  • Dress warmly. Layering your clothing will provide the best insulation and retain body heat. Wearing a non-permeable outer layer will minimize the effects of strong winds.
  • Protect your extremities. Hands and feet are at greater risk of frostbite because body heat is naturally reserved in the torso to protect vital organs. So wear an extra pair of socks, and choose mittens because fingers stay warmer when next to each other.
  • Wear a hat. You lose about 30 percent of your body's heat from your head. Particularly good are hats that cover the ears and nose.
  • Wear properly fitted winter boots. Boots that are too tight can limit or cut off circulation to the feet and toes. Also, choose a boot that's insulated and has treads on the bottom for traction on ice and snow.
  • Stay hydrated. The body uses a lot of energy to keep itself warm. Drinking plenty of fluids is important because your body will need frequent replenishing when fighting off the cold.
  • Get out of wet clothing as soon as possible.

When you're out in the cold, the part of your skin that's exposed will chill rapidly, experts say. This can lead to decreased blood flow and your body temperature can drop, leaving you susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia.

According to Marshall, frostbite "starts with tingling or stinging sensations. The face, fingers, and toes are the first body parts to be affected. Then muscles and other tissues can become numb." Additional signs of frostbite include redness and pain in the skin. This can lead to discolored and numb skin, he said.

Hypothermia, which often goes hand-in-hand with frostbite, can affect the brain, making it harder to think clearly. Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, confusion, slurred speech and drowsiness, Marshall said.

"If any of these symptoms become noticeable, you should protect the exposed skin, get to a warm place and seek immediate medical treatment," he said.

Some people are especially vulnerable to the dangers of cold weather. They include the elderly, those with diabetes, heart, or circulatory problems, and people who use alcohol, caffeine or other drugs that inhibit the body's ability to protect itself against the cold.

Dr. Robert Glatter, an physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said there are several key factors that determine how long people can endure extremely cold temperatures. Those factors are wind speed, how well a person is dressed, and if their skin is wet or moist.

Dressing in layers may help. Use the "three-layers guideline" to provide more effective insulation. The first layer helps to drain moisture or sweat. The second layer serves as insulation, while a third sturdy outer layer can help to block out the cold, Glatter said.

If you think you or another person is suffering from frostbite, get to a health-care professional as fast as possible or call 911. If you can't get immediate medical help for at least two hours, re-warm the affected area with warm water. And drink warm, non-alcoholic fluids, Glatter said.

Cindy Lord is director of the physician assistant program at the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. She likes to use the acronym C.O.L.D. when advising people on dealing with the cold.

  • Cover up: Wear a hat or other protective covering to prevent body heat loss from your head, face and neck.
  • Overexertion: Avoid activities that cause you to sweat a lot. This can cause you to lose body heat more quickly.
  • Layers: Dress in layers. Wear loose-fitting, layered, lightweight clothing. Wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers hold better than cotton.
  • Dry: Get out of wet clothing as soon as possible. Keep your hands and feet dry.

And for those who will have to venture out to shovel snow from driveways and sidewalks in the coming days, Lisa Hoglund, a physical therapy professor at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, offered this advice:

  • Warm up before heading out by jogging in place or stretching.
  • Use a shovel that is designed to be lighter and easier on your back to use.
  • Use the right technique when shoveling, pushing the snow more than lifting it, and bending with your knees before lifting.
  • Shovel smaller amounts of snow at a time.

  • Take breaks every 15 minutes or so, and stop shoveling if you feel pain, shortness of breath or chest discomfort.

Explore further: The cold, hard truth about surviving bitter winter weather

More information: For more on protecting yourself in the cold, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Related Stories

The cold, hard truth about surviving bitter winter weather

January 6, 2014
(HealthDay)—The record-shattering cold weather that's gripping much of the United States can pose extreme health risks, doctors warned Monday.

Hypothermia and older adults

January 7, 2014
Frigid weather can pose special risks to older adults. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, has some advice for helping older people avoid hypothermia—when the body gets too ...

Fat-finger a text rather than lose digit to frostbite

December 16, 2013
The popular half-gloves that leave fingers uncovered for texting may be good for communicating electronically, but they may also lead to permanent loss of fingers due to exposure to the cold. 

Extreme cold snap brings unexpected health risks

January 24, 2013
(HealthDay)—As extreme cold blankets many parts of the United States, one expert warns that frigid temperatures can put people at greater risk not only for hypothermia and frostbite, but also for stroke, heart attack and ...

Tips for safe winter workouts

December 22, 2013
(HealthDay)—If you exercise outdoors during the winter, be sure to do so safely, an expert says.

Texting gloves dangerous in winter, specialist says: Unprotected fingers, toes, ears and noses susceptible to frostbite

February 28, 2013
The popular half-gloves that leave fingers uncovered for texting may be good for communicating electronically, but they may also lead to permanent loss of fingers due to exposure to the cold.

Recommended for you

Americans are getting more sleep

January 19, 2018
Although more than one in three Americans still don't get enough sleep, a new analysis shows first signs of success in the fight for more shut eye. According to data from 181,335 respondents aged 15 and older who participated ...

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

Can muesli help against arthritis?

January 15, 2018
It is well known that healthy eating increases a general sense of wellbeing. Researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have now discovered that a fibre-rich diet can have a positive influence ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.