Cold Weather Safety


Baby, is it cold outside! As if to remind us who's in charge, Mother Nature once again is giving us the cold shoulder, not to mention cold hands and feet. While most folks brave the cold-weather season pretty well, it's important to know how to protect yourself and your loved ones from potential cold-weather dangers.

Signs of Frostbite

If your skin looks mottled or pale and you're experiencing "pins and needles" in your hands, feet, nose, ears or cheeks, then you're likely experiencing frostnip, which is a signal that you need to get into a warm, dry environment immediately so you don't develop frostbite. Frostbite is when tiny ice crystals form in skin tissue. Other signs include a tiny white dot on the nose or on the tip of one or more fingers. Also, dark-skinned people may appear pale, or their skin may look gray; fair-skinned people should be on the lookout for yellowish skin.

What does frostbite feel like? You likely will have numbness in the affected area, as well as itching, burning or sharp pain. However, if caught quickly, frostbite is completely reversible. If not, it can turn into hypothermia, which is when a person's core body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This medical emergency, which can impair the brain and muscles, is a potential killer.

Signs of Hypothermia

Be on the lookout for the "umbles." That's when a person mumbles, stumbles, fumbles and grumbles. All are symptoms of early hypothermia. If you see someone who is shivering uncontrollably, doesn't seem to be thinking straight, speaks with a slur, or has trouble holding onto objects, get them into a warm environment immediately. If the symptoms fail to improve within a short time, call a doctor or go to the nearest emergency room.

Who's at Risk for Winter Injuries?

The very young and the elderly are at an increased risk for cold-weather injuries, but so are people with heart disease and diabetes. Also, certain medications can increase a person's risk of cold-weather illness because they interfere with the body's heat-regulation system (like your significant other changing the thermostat on the wall). And people who work outdoors in cold environments are also at risk. Even if you're taking a walk or exercising outdoors, you must be aware of the signs and symptoms of hypothermia.

How to Protect Yourself in Cold Weather

When you're exposed to the cold, the first line of defense is to wear loose-fitting and dry clothing (wet clothing makes it difficult to maintain a normal body temperature). Dress in layers. If you work in the cold, or exercise outside, wear clothing made of polypropylene, which will wick perspiration away from the skin and keep your body dry. Also, wear a hat and scarf. It's true that 40 to 50 percent of our body heat can be lost from the surface of the head and neck. And no, it doesn't matter if you have a thick head of hair. You still need protection.

Here are some other ways to protect yourself from winter's cold shoulder:

  • Protect your hands and feet. Wear mittens when possible because your fingers can share warmth (regular gloves are good, but mittens have the edge.) Wear socks that will keep your feet dry and warm. Some people wear a light liner sock made of a material that wicks away moisture next to the foot and then put a natural fiber sock over it. Try to wear the higher cut socks, not the low risers.
  • Protect your lips. Use lip balm to keep your lips from drying out from the cold and windy weather.
  • Avoid dehydration. As long as fluids are not restricted by your physician, drink plenty of water to stay well hydrated.
  • Dress properly. Wear outer clothing that shields the wind and sun from your skin. Cold and windy air causes a wind-chill effect that is much colder and more dangerous than the outside air temperature.
  • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol causes your body to lose heat, in addition to contributing to dehydration.
  • Be prepared. When traveling by car, keep extra socks, blankets, water and snacks on hand in case a mechanical problem, storm or empty gas tank leaves you stranded.
  • Inquire about your meds. Ask your physician or pharmacist if any of the medications you take can make you more susceptible to a cold-weather illness.
  • Protect your children. Instruct the kids to come inside when they feel cold, or if their clothes get wet.
  • Play it safe. Because they pose a strangulation risk, it's best not to wrap children in scarves. Instead, use a neck "gaiter", which stays in place and keeps your child warm without risk.
  • Eat light. A snack before going out in the cold is better than a heavy meal, which requires a large blood flow to the gastrointestinal system to aid in digestion. The digestive process may prevent warm blood from circulating to your fingers and toes. Save the heavier meal for when you are safely back inside.

Now that you are an expert in cold-weather safety, perhaps you can help Jack Frost from nipping at his own nose!

Copyright 2003, Dr. Rob Danoff

Robert Danoff, D.O., M.S., is a family physician. He is program director of Family Practice Residency Frankford Hospitals, Jefferson Health System, Philadelphia, Pa. He also is a medical correspondent for The Comcast Network, CN8, contributing writer to the New York Times and writes a weekly medical column for the Bucks Courier Times, Bucks County Pa.