Winter Is Here: Know the Threats of Cold Weather
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Published on November 30, 2018

thermometer in snow

Winter Is Here: Know the Threats of Cold Weather

As nip in the air goes from crisp to downright mean, it’s always smart to review the threats posed by low temperatures and all that comes with winter.

Avera Medical Group Marshall family medicine physician Brent Griffin, MD, has spent his life in North Dakota and Minnesota and said there are common challenges that come with the season and gives advice as to how you can avoid them at their worst.

“We’re hardy folks, us Midwesterners, but winter threats can crop up, especially for people whose work requires time spent outdoors,” Griffin said. “Remember that wetness, along with handling cold tools or equipment, can lower your body temperature. Using your brain is the No. 1 step for a safe winter season.”

Common sense goes a long way toward fighting winter’s ills, but sometimes things get bad.

“In general, people do a good job of avoiding cold-weather injuries, but it’s always wise to know what the risks are,” said Avera Medical Group emergency physician Jared Friedman, MD. “We do see some in our emergency rooms each winter.”

The threat: Chilblains

What it is and how to avoid it: This inflammatory condition can crop up after you’ve been out of the cold, and that delay can throw people off. “Red skin and swelling can show up hours, or sometimes up to a day or two after your exposure. It’s painful, but not serious,” said Griffin. “Make sure you wear gloves or mittens, even on short trips outside because cold exposure is at the root of chilblains.”

The threat: Frost nip

What it is and how to avoid it: Frostbite’s “little brother” is frost nip, and it’s a sign that you need to take a break and get out of the wind and white stuff. “The tissue is beginning to freeze, but it’s still flexible. There’s usually pain and numbness, especially in the nose, ears and fingers,” Griffin said. “Get inside and use gradual warming to increase temps. Don’t use rapid heating like very hot water or a hair dryer as it can lead to burns.”

The threat: Circulation conditions and cold weather

What it is and how to avoid it: Many people who face cold weather may have higher risks of injury due to circulation problems related to chronic conditions such as peripheral vascular disease and diabetes.

“People who smoke also have a higher risk, and while it may feel like alcohol will ‘warm you’ it’s actually helping your body shed heat faster since it’s a vasodilating chemical,” said Friedman. “The very young and old also are more prone to skin damage and hypothermia in winter, and they should be bundled up and protected.”

The threat: Frostbite

What it is and how to avoid it: As body temperature drops, finger tips, earlobes and toes may actually begin to freeze if exposure is extreme. After frost nip, frostbite sets in, and if you’re not careful, it can lead to permanent damage. In its most dangerous form, it can lead to blisters and in some cases, amputation to avoid gangrene.

“When skin goes from numb and red to firm and rigid, like a steak in the freezer, it’s frostbite,” said Griffin. “In some cases it can be an emergency and medical attention should be sought. The tissue damage can lead to infection and further complications. Start by getting out of the cold, but if the tissue remains rigid and tender, get an appointment or visit an urgent-care clinic.”

The threat: Immersion foot

What it is and how to avoid it: While rare, individuals who spend hours in wet socks and shoes can develop rashes, swelling and sensitivity to touch. Pack along extra socks and change them regularly. In most cases, a break from time outdoors and a change of footwear will help avoid this less-common condition that occurs in sloppy seasons.

The threat: Snow blindness

What it is and how to avoid it: Glare from sunlight, especially off of snow and ice, can impact the cornea of the eye. While this condition more often affects skiers and explorers in the Arctic, it can happen to anyone. Sunglasses are a good way to keep your eyes safe all winter long, especially on days with sharp sunlight when you’re out for a long hike.

The threat: Hypothermia

What it is and how to avoid it: There are telltale signs that our bodies are begging to go in by the fire or under some blankets. This condition is serious and potentially fatal.

“Shivering is the natural response to cold, and as your body temp drops, warming up at home may not be enough,” Friedman said. “When you stop shivering, you’re now moving into moderate hypothermia as the body temperature dips below 90. This is when people will feel clumsy or confused. They need to take immediate action: get out of the cold and if necessary, get to an emergency room.”

When people fail to warm up, severe hypothermia can set in and lead to death. When someone does get too cold, gradually warm the person and seek medical attention if their body temperature does not increase.

“True hypothermia can be difficult to treat, is quite serious and may require quick action to help the person,” Friedman said. “Medical attention can make a difference and could end up saving a person’s life.”

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