Spending too much time outdoors on bitter and blustery days can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. If your driveway needs shoveling, you work outside, or you do winter activities like skiing or snowshoeing, make sure you’re properly attired.
When your skin is exposed to the elements for long enough, the fluid inside and outside your cells freezes, and your blood vessels constrict. Without enough warm blood flowing through your tissues, ice crystals form, and you can develop frostbite. Extremities —including your fingers, toes, nose, and ears — are most susceptible to freezing. If you don’t get warm quickly enough, the damage can be irreversible.
A drop in body temperature below 95 degrees, called hypothermia, prevents your organs from working properly. Hypothermia can lead to irregular heartbeat, confusion, and loss of consciousness. Eventually, your organs can shut down.
Here are a few tips for protecting your extremities — and the rest of you — on the coldest days.
Check the weather before you venture outdoors. If it’s very cold, snowy, or windy, stay inside if you can. “It takes only minutes for exposed skin to become frostbitten if the temperature falls below 20 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing at 20 miles per hour or more,” said orthopaedic surgeon, Taizoon Baxamusa, MD.
If you have to go outside, throwing on a winter coat isn’t enough to prevent frostbite and other cold weather dangers, said Amy J. Derick, MD, FAAD, clinical instructor of dermatology at Northwestern University. “To really protect your skin from dangerously low temperatures, keep an eye on the weather, dress appropriately for outdoor activities, and stay dry.”
Wear loose layers – they’ll hold heat close to your body. You’ll also have the option of shedding layers once the day warms up. Start with long underwear made from a synthetic material. Top it with a wool or fleece sweater and pants. Cover that with a down parka —and ski pants if you’ll be trudging through snow. Every layer should be waterproof or water-repellant to keep you dry and warm. Check for any gaps in your clothing where cold air or snow might sneak in.
Focus on the areas where you lose heat fastest — your hands and feet. If you’re going to be outside for any length of time, wear two pairs of socks. The bottom sock should be made of a moisture-wicking fabric to pull wetness away from your toes. Top that with a pair of wool socks for insulation. Wear thick, waterproof boots that reach at least to your ankles. Protect your hands with insulated, waterproof gloves or mittens.
Your ears and nose are two of your most vulnerable body parts. Keep your head covered with a wool or fleece hat. Protect your face with a scarf or facemask so that warm air stays around your nose and mouth.
You’re more likely to develop frostbite when you’re dehydrated. Drink a glass of water before and after shoveling, skiing, or doing any other outdoor activity. Stay away from alcohol. Though it will temporarily produce a warming sensation, alcohol actually increases your risk for frostbite. Caffeine and nicotine also leave your skin more vulnerable to cold injury.
If you feel any stinging, burning, or numbness in your skin, head indoors. Take off any wet clothing, wrap yourself in a blanket, and slowly warm the affected area. “Try to gradually bring feeling back into the body,” said Derick. “Never rub frostbitten skin or submerge your hands or feet directly into hot water – use warm water or a warm washcloth instead. If you do not feel sensation returning to your body, or if the skin begins to turn gray, go to an emergency room immediately.” For hypothermia, get medical attention right away.
January 11, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN