Disaster Resources - University of Illinois Extension

Stay Healthy in Extreme Cold

Extreme cold temperatures pose a substantial danger during the winter months. Prolonged exposure to the cold can cause frostbite, hypothermia, or even death. Persons most susceptible to extreme cold are infants and the elderly.

Frostbite is a severe reaction to cold exposure of the skin that can permanently damage fingers, toes, the nose, and ear lobes. Symptoms are loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance to the skin. If these symptoms are apparent, seek medical help immediately. If medical help is not immediately available, slowly rewarm the affected areas. If the victim is also showing signs of hypothermia, always warm the body core before the extremities.

Hypothermia (Low Body Temperature) is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops to less than 95ºF. Symptoms include slow or slurred speech, incoherence, memory loss, disorientation, uncontrollable shivering, drowsiness, repeated stumbling, and apparent exhaustion. If these symptoms are detected, take the person's temperature. If below 95ºF, immediately seek medical help. If medical aid is not available, begin warming the person slowly. Always warm the body core/trunk first. If needed, use your own body heat to warm the victim. Get the person into dry clothing, and wrap them in a warm blanket covering the head and neck. Do not give the person alcohol, drugs, coffee, or any hot beverage or food; warm broth is better. Do not warm extremities (arms and legs) first. This drives the cold blood toward the heart and can lead to heart failure.

Winter Deaths

Everyone is potentially at risk with the actual threat depending upon individual situations. Recent winter death statistics in the United States indicate the following:

Related to ice and snow: About 70% occur in automobiles; 25% are people caught out in the storm; and the majority are males over 40 years old.

Related to exposure to cold: 49% are people over 60 years old; over 75% are males; and about 20% occur in the home.

Recommended Winter Attire

Wear loose fitting, lightweight, warm clothing in several layers (the trapped air between the layers insulates). Layers can be removed to avoid perspiration and subsequent chill. Outer garments should be tightly woven, water repellent, and hooded. Wear a hat (half of body heat is lost through the top of the head). Cover the mouth with scarves to protect lungs from cold air. Mittens, snug at the wrist, are better than gloves. Gloves allow your fingers to cool much faster than mittens do. Try to stay dry. Do not stay outside for extended periods!

Be Aware

Cold weather puts a strain on your heart, even without exercise. Be careful when shoveling snow, pushing a car, or performing other tasks. Regardless of your age or physical condition, avoid overexertion in the winter.

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