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Temperatures Taking a Dive Means Increased Risk of Cold Exposure

by -

Man bundled up in heavy coat walking in snow.

It's easy to get cold quickly if you are outside in wet, windy or cold weather. When the temperatures plummet into the negative-degree range, it only takes minutes for exposed skin to be at risk for cold exposure injuries. That’s why it’s vital to dress properly if you’re spending time in the extreme cold. Make sure to have a hat, scarf or knitted mask, water-resistant coat, mittens or gloves and water-resistant boots. Dress in layers, but not too heavy or too tight.

“It’s important to bundle up at home. Even if you’re running to the grocery store make sure you’re putting on hats, gloves and scarves,” says Jordan Wagener, RN at UnityPoint Health® - Trinity.

Potential Injuries from Cold Exposure

  • “Frostnip” usually affects skin on the face, ears, or fingertips. Frostnip may cause numbness or blue-white skin color for a short time, but normal feeling and color return quickly when you get warm. No permanent tissue damage occurs.

  • Frostbite is freezing of the skin and the tissues under the skin because of temperatures below freezing. Frostbitten skin looks pale or blue and feels cold, numb, and stiff or rubbery to the touch.

  • Hypothermia, an abnormally low body temperature, occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can make heat. Early symptoms of hypothermia include shivering in adults and older children; clumsy movements; apathy; poor judgment; and cold, pale, or blue-gray skin. Hypothermia is an emergency condition—it can quickly lead to unconsciousness and death if the heat loss is not stopped.

“Just a couple minutes outside you can start to get the first signs of frostbite. You can start to get the redness in your ears, nose, tingling and all that,” says Wagener. “The biggest thing is to be prepared.”

Other Risk Factors for Cold ExposureSigns of frostbite and treatment tips

  • Being an older adult or infant

  • Drinking alcohol in excess or use of illicit drugs

  • Being in outdoor conditions, such as high altitudes or windy, wet weather

  • Not being dressed properly, having wet skin, or wearing wet clothing

  • Being tired or dehydrated

  • Having certain health risks

What to Do

If you detect symptoms of frostbite:

  • Get into a warm room as soon as possible.

  • Avoid walking on frostbitten feet or toes as it can increase the damage.

  • Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water.

  • Or, warm the affected area using body heat.

  • Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all as this can cause more damage.

  • Don’t 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.

Frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider. Hypothermia is a serious medical condition and requires immediate emergency assistance.