Being in the cold too long can cause serious health problems. When temperatures drop below normal, staying safe and healthy can be challenging. Hypothermia and frostbite are the most common cold-related health problems.
Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, is a dangerous condition that can occur when a person is exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia especially dangerous, because a person may not know that it’s happening, become confused, and won’t be able to do anything about it.
Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposures to very cold temperatures. When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced. Prolonged exposures will eventually use up your body’s stored energy, which leads to lower body temperature.
Hypothermia can be fatal if not detected promptly and treated properly. Even mildly cool indoor temperatures of 60 degrees to 65 degrees F for an extended period of time can trigger hypothermia.
Infants and the elderly are particularly at risk of hypothermia. Infants younger than one year of age should never sleep in a cold room because they lose body heat more easily than adults and because, unlike adults, infants cannot make enough body heat by shivering. Provide warm clothing and blankets for infants and try to maintain a warm indoor temperature. If the temperature cannot be maintained, make temporary arrangements to stay elsewhere.
Older adults often make less body heat because of a slower metabolism and less physical activity. If you are 65 years of age or older, check the temperature in your home often during severely cold weather. Also, check on elderly friends and neighbors frequently to ensure that their homes are adequately heated.
Warnings signs of hypothermia:
- shivering, exhaustion
- confusion, fumbling hands
- memory loss, slurred speech drowsiness
- bright red, cold skin
- very low energy
If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95° F, the situation is an emergency—get medical attention immediately.
Frostbite is a bodily injury caused by freezing that results in loss of feeling and color in affected areas. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation.
Parts of the body most affected by frostbite are exposed areas of the face (cheeks, nose, chin, forehead), the ears, wrists, hands and feet. When spending time outdoors during cold weather, be alert for signs of frostbite. Frostbitten skin is whitish and stiff, and the area will feel numb rather than painful. If you notice these signs, take immediate action.
To treat frostbite, warm the affected part of the body gradually. Immerse the affected area in warm¾not hot¾water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body). You can also wrap the frostbitten area in blankets, sweaters, coats, etc. If no warm wrappings are available, place frostbitten hands under your armpits or use your body to cover the affected area. Do not rub frostbitten areas. The friction can damage the tissue. Do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
If frostbite occurs, take emergency action to begin warming the affected body part; then seek medical attention immediately.
When there are high winds, serious weather-related health problems are more likely. Wind chill is the “feels like” temperature, combining the wind speed and the actual temperature. It is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by the effects of wind and cold. As the speed of the wind increases, it can carry heat away from your body much more quickly, causing skin temperature to drop.
Dressing for the cold
If you need to be outside, the following suggestions will help keep you warm and protect your body from excessive heat loss.
- Wear several layers of lightweight clothing rather than one or two layers of heavy garments. The air between the layers of clothing acts as insulation to keep you warmer.
- Cover your head. You lose as much as 50 percent of your body heat through your head.
- Wear mittens rather than fingered gloves.
- Wear warm leg coverings and heavy socks or two pairs of lightweight socks.
- Wear waterproof boots or sturdy shoes that give you maximum traction.
- Cover your ears and the lower part of your face. The ears, nose, chin, and forehead are most susceptible to frostbite. Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect the lungs from directly inhaling extremely cold air.
Cold weather itself, without any physical exertion, puts an extra strain on your heart so know your limits when shoveling snow, especially if you do not exercise regularly. If you have a history of heart trouble or any chronic health concerns, talk to your health care provider before shoveling snow. You should rest frequently and pace yourself when shoveling. Remember to lift the snow with your legs, not your back. If you use a snow blower, never use your hands to unclog the machine. If you become breathless, stop, go indoors and warm up before continuing. If you experience chest or arm pain or numbness, stop immediately and go indoors; you may need to call 911. Overexertion can cause sore muscles, falls, and heart attacks.
For people needing to use alternative sources of heat, IDPH has the following reminders:
- Any heater that uses wood, coal, natural gas, or kerosene produces carbon monoxide (CO), so adequate ventilation is essential.
- Never use a generator indoors, even with open doors or windows.
- Do not use charcoal or gas grills indoors.
- Do not use a gas oven to heat your home.
You cannot see or smell carbon monoxide, but at high levels it can kill a person in minutes. Symptoms of mild to moderate CO poisoning include headaches, dizziness, nausea and lethargy. Higher levels of CO exposure can cause fainting, confusion and collapse and if exposure continues, death can result.
Make sure you have enough needed medications, oxygen, diabetes testing equipment, and other medical supplies needed for several days. Talk with your health care provider about scheduling daily or frequent medical care such as dialysis, cancer therapy, and other appointments.