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Protect Yourself from Frigid Temperatures

railing2Everywhere you turn these days, people are talking about the cold weather and the “polar vortex”.  Wisconsin has set record low air temperatures and record wind chill temperatures.  Be sure to plan ahead to avoid cold weather injuries such as frostbite or hypothermia.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is literally the freezing of body tissue (usually skin) caused by either prolonged exposure to cold temperatures or shorter exposure to very cold temperatures.

There are three degrees of frostbite, including:

  • Frostnip, which is a mild form of frostbite and does not lead to permanent tissue damage.  It usually affects ears, cheeks, nose, fingertips and toes.
  • Superficial frostbite, in which the outer skin is affected and can cause lasting damage.
  • Deep frostbite, in which the skin and underlying tissue freezes.  Permanent damage is possible, depending on how long and how deeply the tissue is frozen.

Who is at risk?

Anyone can end up with frostbite if exposed to frigid conditions for too long, but some people are more vulnerable than others, including:

  • The very young and the very old.
  • People with diabetes or other medical conditions associated with poor circulation.
  • People with heart conditions who take beta-blockers.
  • Those who smoke and/or drink alcohol while exposed to cold weather.

What are the signs/symptoms of frostnip/frostbite?

Signs of frostnip include pale skin, numbness, or tingling in the affected area.  A “pins and needles” sensation, severe pain, itching, and burning are all common when the affected area is warmed and blood starts flowing again.  Frostbite is more serious and skin can become hard, pale, and cold.  It may ache but lack sensitivity to touch.  As the area thaws, it becomes red and painful.  With severe frostbite, skin may look white, grayish-yellow, or even black and it may feel hard, waxy, and numb.  Blistering is also common.

What are the treatments for frostnip/frostbite?

Get out of the cold and into a warm place.  Remove any constrictive or wet clothing.

  • For frostnip, immerse the affected area in warm, not hot, water.  If water is not available, warm the tissue with body heat.  For example, warm your hands by tucking them into your armpits and warm your nose, ears, or face by covering them with dry hands.
  • For frostbite, wrap affected areas in sterile dressings being sure to separate fingers and toes.  Go to an urgent care or an emergency room right away.

Do not:

  • Thaw the frostbitten tissue if there is a chance that it will refreeze before you get medical attention, as this increases the likelihood of permanent damage.
  • Rub or massage frostbitten skin or disturb blisters, which can further damage tissue.
  • Use direct dry heat, like heating pads or a campfire to thaw frostbitten tissue.

How can I stay safe?

Listen to the weather forecasts, plan ahead and be prepared.  Don’t ignore warnings about storms and wind chills.  Also:

  • Wear several layers of warm loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.  The layer closest to your skin should be a fabric that wicks moisture from the skin (like a polyester blend).  The outer layer should serve as a windbreaker.
  • Mittens provide more protection than gloves.  Wearing two pairs of socks is advised, with wool recommended for the outer later.  And don’t forget a hat and scarf that covers the ears.  A large amount of body heat can be lost through your head.
  • Get moving.  Increasing physical activity will help your body stay warm.  Wiggle fingers and toes if they start to feel numb.
  • Don’t drink alcohol before or during cold weather exposure, since alcohol may prevent you from realizing that your body is becoming too cold.
  • Don’t smoke.  Smoking constricts blood vessels and increases the risk for frostbite.

Keep a winter survival kit in your car.  In an emergency, it could save your life and the lives of your passengers.  Be sure to grab some bottled water and any necessary medications right before leaving.  Here is what you’ll need to put together a car kit:

  • windshield scraper and small broom
  • flashlight with extra batteries
  • battery powered radio
  • snack food including energy bars, raisins and mini candy bars2010-07-09-121316-1800x1928-600x401
  • matches and small candles
  • extra hats, socks and mittens
  • first aid kit with pocket knife
  • blankets or sleeping bag
  • jumper cables
  • tow chain or rope
  • a shovel
  • road salt, sand, or cat litter for traction
  • emergency flares and reflectors, fluorescent distress flag and whistle to attract attention
  • cell phone charger to plug into lighter

Many people with frostbite may also suffer from hypothermia (body temperature that is too low), which can be deadly.  This is why it is so important to seek medical attention immediately.  Signs of hypothermia may include: slowed or slurred speech; sleepiness or confusion; shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs; poor control over body movements; slow reactions, or a weak pulse.

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