Baby, it’s cold outside!

Cold temperatures, wind and moisture can be a recipe for frostbite, which occurs when the body's tissue actually freezes. During frostbite, the blood vessels contract and blood flow and oxygen are reduced. There are three degrees of cold injury:

  • Frostnip: While skin on the face, ears or fingertips might feel numb, the underlying tissue remains unaffected, which means frostnip does not lead to permanent tissue damage. However, when your skin feels numb, it's a warning sign. It might be a good time to head for shelter.
  • Superficial frostbite: If you’ve been exposed to cold temperatures for a long period of time or experienced severely low temperatures for just a short period of time, you could develop superficial frostbite, in which the outer skin is affected. You may experience a pins and needles sensation, itching and burning, or even severe pain until the affected tissue is warm and the blood is flowing again. Skin may start looking white or grayish yellow and may feel hard or waxy to the touch. You should seek medical attention if you experience frostbite.
  • Deep frostbite: The underlying tissue is frozen during deep frostbite, which, depending on the length and the severity of the freeze, can lead to permanent damage. The skin may be black and could also begin to blister. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Midwest winters are long and cold. When we venture outside, we need to take precautions to prevent frostbite. While anyone can be gripped by frostbite when exposed to the right weather conditions, some people are more susceptible to developing frostbite than others. People who are in the following categories or people who have the following medical conditions should take extra care:

  • Young children
  • Elderly
  • People with medical conditions associated with poor circulation including those diagnosed with diabetes
  • Patients taking beta-blockers, medication that decrease blood flow to the skin

Pay attention to the weather. Low temperatures and high winds combine for wind chills that could freeze your nose or other exposed skin in minutes. shared a Wind Chill chart that indicates the time it would take for frostbite to set in on exposed areas of skin.

For example, if the temperature is -10 degrees and the wind is blowing at 25 miles per hour, you could get frostbite in just 10 minutes. Consult the Wind Chill Chart.

Dress for warmth. If you do go out, dress in layers. Multiple layers will trap warm air, providing natural insulation for your body. The layer next to your skin should wick moisture away so you stay dry; top that with a layer for warmth. Your outside layer should be wind resistant. Remember, your feet should have layers too: wicking socks, wool socks and boots can help your feet stay warm and dry.

Opt for mittens; they are warmer than gloves. They also hold a chemical heating packets easier. Choose mittens that are snug at the wrists so the delicate skin in that area is not exposed. If your fingers and toes start to feel numb, move them to increase the circulation which will help them stay warm.

Wear turtlenecks, scarves, and hats to protect your head and neck. These are some of the areas that are most susceptible to frostbite.

Remember, freezing temperatures and alcohol don’t mix. Alcohol may prevent you from realizing that your body is getting cold and put you in a dangerous situation.

Additionally, the signs of hypothermia are strikingly similar to the signs you’ve had too much alcohol. As a result, you or your friends might not realize that your fellow tailgater or party-goer might be suffering from hypothermia.

The warning signs that your body temperature might be dropping too low are: slurred speech, disorientation, memory loss, incoherence, uncontrollable shivering, and drowsiness. If these symptoms occur, seek medical attention immediately.

If you or a loved one is suffering from frostbite or hypothermia:

  1. Move to a warm area.
  2. Remove restrictive clothes or jewelry that could be restricting blood flow to the affected parts of the body.
  3. If you see signs of frostbite or suspect hypothermia, seek medical attention immediately.
  4. Remove and replace wet clothing then use dry, sterile gauze to sop up moisture in affected areas of frostbite.
  5. Elevate frostbitten limbs to ease pain and cover a person who may be hypothermic with blankets, pillows, towels, or even newspapers if nothing else is available.
  6. If you are unable to reach a medical facility, re-warm frostbitten areas with lukewarm water (between 100 and 105 degrees) for 20 - 45 minutes until the tissue becomes soft again.
  7. Do not apply a heat source or hot water directly to the skin and avoid rubbing or massaging areas that might be affected by frostbite.

Be safe when traveling. Make sure your cell phone is charged on long drives and think about investing in a car charger if you are not already equipped. Keep a cold-weather emergency kit in your car. While you can purchase an all-in-one kit at major chain stores or some auto-parts stores, you can also make your own. Be sure to include:

  • A blanket to provide an extra layer in case your car won’t start
  • A snow shovel in case you need to remove snow from around the wheels of your car
  • A flashlight with fresh batteries
  • Light sticks or Flares
  • Hand warmers
  • Matches or lighters
  • Bottles of water and protein or snack bars in case your are stranded for a long period of time
  • Syphon pump or gas can
  • Whistle

With the right equipment and cold weather accessories you can ensure you’re not left out in the cold this winter.

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