Last year’s winter temperatures in North America were the warmest on record, according to the National Climate Center. But this year, Arctic temperatures have returned.
And that creates a winter health hazard that should not be ignored. Serious cold-related injuries may occur when your body cannot warm itself or when exposed skin freezes. These injuries could include permanent tissue damage – and even death.
Cold related illnesses can slowly overcome a person who has been chilled by low temperatures, brisk winds, or wet clothing. The two most common ones are frostbite and hypothermia.
Frostbite is the free freezing of deep layers of skin and tissue. As frostbite develops, the skin may take on a pale, waxy-white color, become hard to the touch, and go numb. Frostbite most often affects fingers, hands, toes, feet, ears, and the nose.
Hypothermia occurs when body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Often the first sign of hypothermia is uncontrolled shivering, fatigue, or drowsiness. The skin becomes bluish and cool to the touch. Hypothermia can also cause slurred speech, clumsy movements, and irritable, irrational, confused behavior.
People with heart disease, diabetes, or hypertension; those who are in poor physical condition or have a poor diet; and those who are older are at greater risk of hypothermia. Some medications also reduce resistance – check with your health care professional.
Learn the signs and symptoms of cold-related illnesses and how to help yourself or anyone else showing them. For both conditions, the first step is to call 911 and begin warming the person or affected area slowly.
Frostbite victims should be brought out of the cold before you thaw out any frozen areas. You can warm your hands by putting them in your armpits and your face and ears by holding dry, gloved hands over them.
People with hypothermia need to be moved out of the cold, stripped of wet clothing, and warmed slowly, with warm (not hot) compresses to the groin, chest, and neck. Never apply direct heat, never warm the arms or legs, and never rub the body.
To avoid cold-related injuries, learn to recognize weather conditions that are hazardous. Pay attention not only to the temperature, but also to the wind chill and the possibility of getting wet. Dress in layers, and be prepared for wet conditions.
Most important, always use the buddy system when you’re out in the cold. It’s often easier to recognize symptoms in another person than in yourself, and if something does go wrong, you’ll have help nearby.