Extreme cold poses real danger

Extreme cold poses real danger
Published: .

With sub-zero wind chills already here this week and set to return after the weekend snow, Hoosiers are being warned to bundle up if they have to venture outside.

The biggest problems in this cold weather are hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia comes when your core temperature starts to drop. Your body will feel cold and you'll start to shiver. That's your sign to seek warmth immediately. If you don't or can't, your body can start to shut down and you can die.

The other danger is frostbite - literally a burning of the skin from the cold. It can lead to the amputation of your fingers, toes and even your ears. Community North Hospital saw several cases with the last Arctic blast a few weeks ago.

"The first stages aren't quite that bad - skin discoloration, pain, tingling or decreased sensation, don't have outward blisters. It's kind of when it gets worse that you see more of that," said Dr. Erik Fossum, Community North Hospital.

If you must go outside, layer up. Start with a base layer of thermal underwear, wool socks, insulated snow pants, a turtleneck and fleece, with a hat that covers your ears, or a muffler or scarf that covers your nose and mouth, along with insulated, waterproof gloves. Top it off with lined boots to keep your feet warm.

"These extremely cold temperatures, paired with ice and snow, can be treacherous," said State Health Commissioner William VanNess, M.D. "I encourage everyone to stay indoors as much as possible through next week. When you do go outside, bundle up and wear a water-resistant coat and snow boots."

Learn to recognize the signs:

Hypothermia, which is the condition of having an abnormally low body temperature, occurs when a person's body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to the cold will ultimately use up a body's stored energy. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well.

Warning signs of hypothermia in adults include:

• Shivering, exhaustion

• Confusion, fumbling hands

• Memory loss, slurred speech

• Drowsiness

If you notice signs of hypothermia, take a person's temperature. If his/her temperature is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, seek medical attention immediately. Signs of hypothermia in infants include bright red, cold skin and very low energy. Infants less than one year old should never sleep in a cold room because they lose body heat more easily than adults and unlike adults, they cannot make enough body heat by shivering. Adults age 65 and older may make less body heat because of slower metabolism and less physical activity. Hoosiers are encouraged to check on older adult neighbors and relatives.

Babies and older adults are especially vulnerable in these extremely cold temperatures. It's important for these groups to stay in rooms with adequate heat.

Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and in severe cases, can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.

Warning signs of frostbite include:

• White or grayish-yellow skin

• Skin that feels unusually firm or waxy

• Numbness

At the first signs of redness or pain, get out of the cold. Seek care from a health care professional immediately if you detect symptoms of hypothermia or frostbite.

For individuals who must go outdoors, health officials recommend wearing the following items:

• A hat or hood (as most heat is lost through the head)

• A scarf or knit mask to cover face and mouth

• Sleeves that are snug at the wrist

• Mittens (they are warmer than gloves)

• Water-resistant coat and boots

• Several layers of loose-fitting clothing Indoors, take precautions to ensure you are heating your home safely and that you have a working carbon monoxide detector.

For more information about winter weather safety, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at <http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/guide.asp>.