Be Aware of the Risks From Cold Weather
Posted Date: 1/6/2014
When severe winter weather strikes, it’s important to be aware of the health-related issues that the cold weather can cause and to be prepared.
Don’t Let the Frost Bite
Skin exposed to the severe cold or excessive time spent in the elements can lead to frostbite, which causes a loss of feeling and color in the affected areas.
“Frostbite most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes—especially among people who have reduced blood circulation—such as individuals with peripheral vascular disease—or among those who are not dressed properly for the cold weather,” said Tom Fitzgerald, MD, a board-certified emergency physician with Carrollton Emergency Physicians and medical operations leader of the emergency department at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton. “The damage caused by frostbite can be permanent.”
Signs of frostbite include:
- An area of skin that appears abnormally white, or grayish-yellow
Skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
Numbness in a part of the body (people with frostbite are often unaware they have it until someone else points it out because the affected area can go numb)
To prevent frostbite, get out of the cold at the first indications of any pain or redness on the skin, make sure that skin is covered when outdoors, and limit time spent outdoors.
If symptoms of frostbite develop, seek medical care. Avoid walking on frostbitten feet or toes; doing so can cause more damage from the frostbite. Also don’t rub or massage frostbitten areas.
“Don’t attempt to warm frostbitten areas with heating pads, heat lamps or heat from a fireplace or appliance, since these parts of the body can be easily burned,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “If attempting to warm an area that’s developing frostbite, immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water. The temperature of the water should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body.”
Hypothermia a Serious Risk
One of the most serious risks during severely cold weather is hypothermia, which occurs when your body begins to lose heat faster than it can produce heat.
“Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures causes your body to use up its stored energy in trying to produce heat to warm itself,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “When your body can no longer keep up with trying to heat itself, your body temperature will begin to drop, leading to hypothermia.”
Low body temperatures can affect the brain, making it difficult to think clearly or move around easily.
“This makes the condition even more dangerous, because people with hypothermia may be too confused to realize what’s wrong with them,” said Dr. Fitzgerald.
Severely cold weather is a common cause of hypothermia, but it also can occur if someone is chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water. The elderly, people with inadequate clothing or heating, babies in cold bedrooms and people who work outdoors for long periods of time are among those most likely to develop hypothermia.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warnings signs of hypothermia include:
- Fumbling hands
- Memory loss
- Slurred speech
Infants with hypothermia may have bright red, cold skin and very low energy.
“If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s temperature,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “If it is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the situation is an emergency and you should get medical attention immediately.”
If medical care is not available, the CDC suggests to begin warming the person as follows:
- Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it.
Warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head and groin—using an electric blanket (if available) or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels or sheets.
Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages.
Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
Get medical attention as soon as possible.
“A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or be breathing,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “In this case, handle the victim gently and get emergency assistance immediately.”
Stock Your Car for Winter Weather
With the onset of winter weather, it's a good idea to stock your car with a seasonal emergency kit.
The CDC recommends several cold-weather essentials, including:
- Blankets to keep warm
A stash of non-perishable foods and fresh water
A first aid kit
Cat litter or sand in case you need traction
Jumper cables, flares and a tire pump
Maps and a compass, and a stash of plastic bags
A battery-powered radio, flashlight and an extra supply of batteries
If you hit ice, remember not to stomp on the brakes; rather, gently apply pressure to the brakes and try to steer through the slide. If you slide off the road, stay with your car and call for help. Make sure that the exhaust pipe in the back of your vehicle is not blocked if you leave it idling for warmth; blocked exhaust pipes can leak deadly carbon monoxide fumes into your car.
Take Care of Your Heart
Research published in the British Medical Journal found that even a small drop in outdoor temperatures can lead to a heightened risk of heart attacks.
Based on an analysis of temperature records and more than 84,000 hospital admissions for heart attacks that took place over a three-year period between 2003 and 2006 in England and Wales, the study revealed that a drop of just less than two degrees Fahrenheit on a single day gives rise to a cumulative 2 percent rise in the number of heart attacks in the following weeks.
“The elderly and those with prior heart problems appeared to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of temperature reductions,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “Drops in temperature can cause blood pressure to increase. It also makes blood thicker and causes the heart to work harder. This can lead to an increased risk of heart attack.”
People should make sure they continue to take their medications as prescribed during cold weather, Dr. Fitzgerald said, and be aware of the increased risk should they begin to exhibit any signs of a heart attack, such as pain or pressure in the chest, shortness of breath or pain in their left arm.
“Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with extreme cold-weather conditions,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “By preparing your home and car in advance for winter emergencies—and by observing safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather—you can reduce the risk of weather-related health problems.”
Dr. Fitzgerald also encouraged residents to check on their neighbors during the cold spell.
“Be sure you check on your elderly family and friends,” he said. “Sometimes, they don't recognize how cold it is getting due to some disease processes that occur with aging. They can become severely hypothermic without recognizing the changes. If roads ice over and power lines go down, there could be power outages that can cause additional problems for the elderly."
If a medical emergency occurs, Tanner Health System provides three 24-hour emergency departments—at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton, Tanner Medical Center/Villa Rica and Higgins General Hospital in Bremen. Immediate care for falls, frostbite and more can also be found at Tanner Urgent Care locations in Carrollton, Villa Rica, Bremen and Wedowee. A list of locations and hours for Tanner Urgent Care is available online at www.TannerUrgentCare.org.