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Preventing and Treating Dangerous Cold Weather Health Conditions

From skiing, sledding, and snowball fights to the less exciting tasks of clearing sidewalks and scraping windshields, wintertime brings plenty of opportunities to get out and enjoy the crisp outdoors. We hope you take part in a number of your favorite seasonal activities, and as always we are here to help you be Prepared4X. 

Cold weather and wind chills can have serious consequences on our health and the health of our loved ones. Learn how to prevent and treat dangerous cold weather conditions. 

Why are cold-weather activities more dangerous?

As outdoor temperatures drop your body has to actively produce heat to maintain proper body functions. The ideal human body temperature is around 98 degrees, if body temperatures drop below 95 degrees they can suffer from hypothermia. Even if your core body temperature stays high, skin exposed to the cold air can freeze and suffer from frostbite. 

Even if the temperature is above freezing the wind chill may be below freezing. Wind chill is a combination of the temperature outside and the speed of the winds. Even a slight wind can strip away heat from your body, leaving you at risk for hypothermia. 

Generating body heat can quickly consume energy reserves. This can lead to exhaustion even if you aren't as physically active as you normally are. A hike on a cold windy day may feel far more exhausting than the same hike on a warm summer day. You are also less likely to notice yourself becoming dehydrated in the cold. Pay careful attention to how many liquids you are consuming to stay hydrated. 

Dress in multiple layers that can be removed and put back on as your body heats up and cools down. Dampness from rain, snow, or even your sweat can make it harder for your body to produce an adequate amount of heat. The layer closest to your skin should ideally be made of synthetic fiber with “wicking” properties. Fabrics that wick sweat from your skin will allow the sweat to evaporate and will keep you warm and dry. Add as many layers as you need based on your body type and the intensity of your activity. Remember that every bit of exposed skin is susceptible to frostbite so try and keep your ears and nose as covered as possible. 

Know the signs!

Hypothermia is a medical condition in which the body’s temperature drops to 95 degrees or lower. Your normal body temperature is typically around 98 degrees so it doesn’t take much before your body is at risk!

Signs and symptoms of hypothermia:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bright red, cold skin (in infants)

Hypothermia is especially dangerous as it occurs gradually and the resulting drowsiness and confusion can add to a lowered awareness of your condition. 

If you believe you or a loved one may be suffering from hypothermia take them to a warm, dry area and remove any wet or damp clothing. Gently warm the center of the body first, the chest, head, and groin regions. Be gentle, jarring movements may cause cardiac arrest in severe cases. If you or your loved one can eat or drink, drink a warm, non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic drink or eat a high-calorie snack to help regain the energy the body needs to produce an adequate amount of natural heat. For all severe cases of hypothermia seek immediate medical intervention.

Frostbite is a condition where a part of the body becomes frozen, leading to skin, nerve, muscle, and even bone damage. There are multiple levels of severity from frostnip to severe frostbite depending on the length of exposure. Frostbite is common in areas that are exposed directly to the cold such as cheeks, nose, and ears however, it is also fairly common in hands and feet. 

Signs and symptoms of frostbite:

  • A prickling feeling in the skin
  • Numbness
  • Red, white, bluish-white, or grayish-yellow skin
  • Hard or waxy-looking skin
  • Clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness
  • Blistering after rewarming, in severe cases

Never rub an area affected by frostbite as you risk damaging the skin. The best method is to warm the skin gently and slowly with body heat or possibly a warm bath. Avoid using heat lamps or heating pads as your body will not be able to detect the heat and you could severely burn yourself or the person you are caring for. You may experience severe pain as your nerve endings regain feeling, consider taking oral pain medication. Elevate the affected area to reduce swelling.

For all severe cases of frostbite seek immediate medical intervention. The risk of infection in areas damaged by frostbite is high. A medical professional can help you clean and bandage the affected area and may prescribe you an antibiotic.  

Heart Attacks occur when blood flow through blood vessels becomes restricted or stops. When temperatures drop below freezing, people often experience vasoconstriction, or the tightening of blood vessels. This restriction of blood flow is often compounded by strenuous cold-weather activities, like shoveling snow. 

A 2015 study found that heart attacks increased 31% during the coldest months as compared to the warmest. Older individuals or individuals who already experience heart conditions will be at a much higher risk. 

Signs and symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Chest discomfort such as uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath. 
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat 
  • Nausea 
  • Lightheadedness.

If you believe you are having a heart attack seek medical attention immediately. Chewing an aspirin may help thin your blood and reduce blood clotting, but you will most likely need immediate and significant medical intervention. The best treatment for a heart attack is prevention. Maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine and be careful to not overexert yourself while doing strenuous activities in the cold.  

Prepared4 The Cold!

Part of being Prepared4X is knowing how to treat conditions like frostbite and hypothermia and being able to properly monitor your body for fatigue and exhaustion. 

Key Takeaways: 

  • Dress in layers that can be removed and put back on depending on how warm your body becomes. 
  • Drink plenty of fluids and eat enough snacks to keep your body’s energy levels up!
  • Take breaks and go somewhere warm when you feel your body’s energy is depleted.
  • Seek shelter and warmth if your body becomes too cold. 

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