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Extreme Cold Weather: Staying Safe

Author: Northwestern Medicine : Contact:

Published: 2015-01-07 : (Rev. 2015-02-22)

Synopsis and Key Points:

Bumps, bruises and sprain Injuries from slips and falls on ice are common, as well as serious conditions like frostbite and hypothermia.

Main Digest

After a few inches of snow, a blast of subzero temperatures and high winds is expected to invade the Chicago area this week bringing with it this season's first major winter storm. Northwestern Medicine® experts caution that as temperatures drop, it's important to take warnings seriously and be careful while outdoors.

Very serious condition that may occur when skin is exposed to a temperature lower than 14 degree F (-10 degree C). Skin first becomes very cold and red, then numb, hard, pale and swollen when underlying tissues are affected. Frostbite requires immediate medical attention because of possible extensive injury, which can be complicated by infection and nerve damage.

Frostnip - A mild form of frostbite which irritates the skin, causing it to become mildly pale or red and feel cold, followed by numbness and a tingling feeling. The skin is not permanently damaged from frostnip. The affected part may be slowly warmed by breathing onto the injured site, such as breathing into cupped hands. A hand with frostnip can also be warmed under the armpit. Numbness gives way to a warm flush feeling that can be painful as rewarming progresses.

Hypothermia - A condition in which body core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions defined as 35.0 degree C (95.0 degree F). Body temperature is usually maintained near a constant level of 36.5 to 37.5 degree C (98 to 100 degree F). Hypothermia can quickly become life threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency. Hypothermia is the opposite of hyperthermia which is present in heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

"We usually see an increase in patients during cold spells," said Jack Franaszek, MD, medical director of Northwestern Medicine immediate care centers. "Minor injuries such as bumps, bruises and sprains from slips and falls on the ice are very common, as well as more serious conditions like frostbite and hypothermia."

To ensure a healthy and safe winter season, Franaszek recommends the following tips:

Be cautious of slippery conditions:

Icy sidewalks are the cause of many slips and falls. Wear boots that are well-insulated and have good traction on the bottom. Take shorter, slower steps to decrease your chance of falling and walk on shoveled sidewalks when possible.

Watch for falling ice:

Icicles build quickly and can be dangerous for unsuspecting pedestrians. Pay attention to signs for falling ice and be aware of your surroundings as you walk near tall buildings.

Dress in layers for warmth:

Avoid being outside for extended periods of time in extreme cold weather. If you are going outdoors, dress appropriately by layering clothing and wearing a scarf, hat and gloves, making sure to cover all areas of exposed skin.

Know the symptoms:

"Prolonged exposure to the cold can cause serious health problems including hypothermia," explained Franaszek. "If you experience symptoms such as shivering, drowsiness or exhaustion, slurred speech, memory loss or confusion, seek medical attention immediately."

Recognize the warning signs of Frostbite:

Frostbite affects areas of exposed skin including the nose, ears cheeks, fingers and toes. Numbness, loss of feeling or a stinging sensation are early warning signs, and if you find your skin to feel firm or waxy or be white or grayish-yellow in color or, get out of the cold and cover the area exposed. For suspected cases of frostbite, rewarm the affected area gently by immersing in warm, not hot, water, and make sure that the fingers or toes are not re-exposed to cold.

Clearing snow:

"Even though clearing snow is good exercise, it can also be dangerous," cautioned Franaszek. "Don't work to the point of exhaustion and pace yourself. If you have a history of heart or back problems, check with your doctor before clearing snow or have someone else shovel for you."

Prepare your house:

More home fires occur during the winter months than any other time of year. Take the proper precautions by having your furnace checked, your chimney inspected and proper smoke and carbon monoxide detectors installed. Make sure all electrical heaters are away from flammable materials, and that combustion heaters are well vented and working properly.

Eat and drink sensibly:

Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages can cause your body to lose heat more rapidly. Drink warm beverages or broth to maintain body temperature.

Check on neighbors and elderly relatives:

Colder weather can put the elderly at higher risk for health problems and restrict them to their homes due to severe weather. When subzero temperatures occur, be sure to check on elderly neighbors and relatives to make sure that their home is adequately heated and that they have the necessary food and other items they need.

Travel safely:

Before you pack up the car and hit the road this season, check the weather forecast. Slow down when driving. Be aware that ice patches can form on bridges, overpasses, and ramps when the rest of the streets are simply wet. It is also a good idea to pack a winter weather emergency kit in your car, complete with extra clothing and blankets, a shovel, sand or cat litter for traction and non-perishable snacks and water.

"Injuries and illnesses related to cold weather are preventable," Franaszek said. "Babies are especially vulnerable to the cold so make sure they are bundled up. Much heat loss occurs from the head so wearing suitable headgear, as your mother always said, is important. It's really all about taking simple precautions that will keep you safe this season."

Shovel Snow Safely by Knowing Your Heart Disease Risk Factors

Dress appropriately:

Cold temperatures slow circulation to the body's extremities. Wear layered clothing, gloves and a hat to help maintain body temperature and circulation.

Don't procrastinate:

The longer the snow sits on the ground, the more compact it becomes. The more compact the snow is, the more exertion it takes to move it. Get out there at first snowfall and plan to make repeat trips.

Take it easy:

Start slowly, take breaks as necessary and try not to do the entire job at once.


Your body needs hydration, even in frigid weather. Drink water regularly to prevent dehydration and don't drink alcohol before shoveling.

Avoid heavy meals:

Digestion strains the heart, so don't eat a meal before shoveling. Choose a protein-rich snack instead for a quick energy source.

Lift small amounts:

Use a small shovel and lift with your legs and buttocks instead of your back to avoid strain on the heart, back and neck. Aim to clear four to six inches per shovel load.

Listen to your body:

Your body knows best. If you are feeling winded or overexerted while shoveling, go inside and rest. Be on the lookout in particular for shortness of breath, chest, throat or arm discomfort or tightness, or lightheadedness. Seek medical attention if those symptoms persist.

Quick Facts:

When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. It is very important to remember to take caution during extremely cold temperatures and severe winter weather to prevent injuries and illness, such as hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia occurs most commonly at very cold environmental temperatures, but can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40 degree F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

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