Although the Midwestern and Eastern parts of our country have been experiencing icy temperature extremes the last few weeks, we in the Pacific Northwest have enjoyed a relatively mild stretch of weather with temperatures hovering in the high 30s and 40s. Warming temperatures often make us think of spring ... but winter isn't done with us yet.
Today we woke to temperatures in the teens and a bitter north wind, a reminder that we still have a ways to go before we can break out the lawn chairs and start planting gardens. Although we've touched on winter water safety, we haven't really discussed two major dangers of winter weather.
Frostbite and Hypothermia
First, let's discuss frostbite. Most have probably heard of it, some may have experienced it for themselves (I know I have). I think here, where temperatures are often milder throughout the winter months, most people tend to think it can't happen to them. I often see people walking around in short sleeves, in skirts, or with no winter gear throughout the winter months.
I shiver just thinking about it.
Maybe my Midwestern roots are showing, but I have a healthy respect for the dangers of winter. Peek in the trunk of my car and you'll think I'm preparing for an apocalypse. That's partly because I've had frostbite before and I know how dangerous it can be.
Symptoms of Frostbite
Frostbite is basically when the skin and underlying tissues freeze. It starts with feeling cold and prickling skin. Next, the area will go numb and the skin will change color, become hard or waxy looking, and you may experience clumsiness as the joints and muscles stiffen.
At it's most severe, frostbite can lead to serious infection, blistering, and even amputation, so it's not to be taken lightly.
Frostbite most commonly happens to toes, fingers, noses, ears, cheeks and chin. Because of the nature of this injury, namely numbness, you may not realize you have it unless someone points it out.
And it's important to note, although it is more common with exposed skin, frostbite can even happen to covered skin.
Causes and Risks
The obvious cause of frostbite is the cold, including temperature, wind, and wet weather. Wearing unsuitable attire makes it more likely, as does touching cold things with bare flesh like metal, cold packs, or ice.
There are other factors that can put you at risk that you may not be aware of such as exhaustion, dehydration, and even excessive sweating (so be careful while shoveling snow or chopping wood). Smoking and drug and alcohol abuse make it more likely, as does age (the very young and very old are more susceptible), and being at a higher altitude so keep this in mind the next time you visit a ski hill.
Although you can self-treat frostnip (when your skin first starts to feel cold and get red but before it goes numb), frostbite requires medical attention. Do what you can to warm the injured area by removing wet clothes, covering with warm blankets or other articles of clothing, and preventing continued exposure to cold temperatures. If you have frostbite on your toes, don't walk around any more than necessary. And, of course, call your primary care provider. If you suspect that the person is past frostbite and has hypothermia, bypass your primary care and call 911.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
That brings us to be the big one ... hypothermia. This is an emergency condition where your body temperature (normally around 98.6 degrees F) falls to below 95 degrees F. At that temperature, major body systems and organs start to fail and eventually, if left untreated, it will kill you.
Sorry to sound so morbid, but hypothermia is extremely dangerous and should never be ignored or underestimated. So, how do you know you've got hypothermia and aren't just cold?
Assuming you don't have a thermometer in your pocket, there are several symptoms to watch out for. Shivering alone doesn't mean you've got hypothermia, but shivering combined with slurring of speech or mumbling, shallow breathing, weakening pulse, confusion, and loss of consciousness mean you're in danger.
Most people who are suffering from hypothermia don't realize it because the symptoms appear gradually. More importantly, the confusion that often accompanies it makes it less likely that they are self-aware and so they may not notice the symptoms at all.
Causes and Risks
These are very similar to frostbite and include exposure to extremely cold weather or cold water. Something to note: hypothermia can happen any time your body is exposed to continuous temperatures that are lower than your normal body temperature, which means that it can happen even in the summer months.
There are plenty of risk factors that make hypothermia more likely (some of which are the same as frostbite). Certain medications and medical conditions can also contribute, so be sure to discuss your health with your primary care provider before attempting any outdoor activities that may put you at risk.
Do this first. Do it as soon as you suspect you or someone else has hypothermia. Then, very carefully, try to get the person inside. Don't jar them too much as this can cause irregular heartbeats. Then, carefully remove any wet clothing and replace with warm clothing and blankets while you wait for emergency vehicles to arrive.
Preventing Frostbite and Hypothermia
Cover. Choose a hat that fully covers your ears. Wear mittens rather than gloves. Add a scarf or other protective covering for your neck, chin, and cheeks.
Overexertion. Avoid activities that will make you sweat a lot. Take frequent breaks.
Layers. Wear loose-fitting, lightweight layers with a waterproof outer layer to protect against wind and water and a wool or silk under-layer to help hold body heat.
Dry. Stay as dry as possible. Change mittens often and take care to keep snow from getting into boots.
If you have to go out in the cold, dress appropriately and don't stay out any longer than necessary. Avoid going out when there is a strong wind, fog, rain, or snow. Set up a buddy system if you're going skiing or snowboarding to help keep watch for signs of hypothermia and frostbite. Dress kids in one layer more than an adult would wear in the same situation.
If you prepare and take care, there are plenty of opportunities for fun in the winter weather, but as this polar vortex reminded so many of us - the cold can be dangerous.
From all of us here at Stillwater Outdoors, be careful and have fun.