Frostbite and Hypothermia: Tips to Stay Safe in Extreme Cold Weather

Here’s how to stay safe as a polar vortex puts the Midwest into a deep freeze this week: Do. Not. Go. Outside.

Experts warn that even a short time in the blistering cold can be extremely dangerous, with the risk of hypothermia and frostbite increasing every minute.

Of course, many of us have no choice: We have to go to work, take care of others, clear snow, get supplies. If you’ll be outside for any amount of time, you should dress warmly and cover any exposed skin.

Here’s what can happen if you don’t.

[Read more about the polar vortex.]

The severity of the threat was expected to be the worst on Wednesday, when actual temperatures could be in the minus double digits, with wind chill as low as minus 50 or 60, forecasters say. Wind aside, the high temperature in Chicago was expected to be minus 15, the low minus 26, according to predictions Tuesday evening.

In such extreme cold, exposed skin can develop frostbite in as little as five minutes, said George T. Chiampas, an emergency medicine doctor and professor at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

The body’s first reaction to extreme cold is to restrict blood and oxygen flow from its extremities, in order to preserve major organs, Dr. Chiampas said. The first signs of frostbite including tingling or pain in the affected areas. If you think you have frostbite, you should immediately go inside and check yourself for any discoloration or other clear sign of frostbite. Fingers, toes and the face are most often affected.

People with frostbite sometimes don’t realize what is happening, because their fingers or other parts of their bodies go numb as it sets in. And if they are also experiencing hypothermia, which can be deadly, their judgment could be seriously impaired. (More on that below.)

Signs of frostbite include skin that has blistered or become discolored, or that feels unusually firm or waxy. It can result in permanent damage and amputation, and can be more dangerous the longer it goes without treatment.

Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Chiampas said his department had treated 15 patients with weather-related complaints in the previous 36 hours, including one who had a finger amputated because of frostbite — a much higher number than is typical for this time of year. The hospital, which is operating a warming center, has prepared for a spike in such patients over the next two days.

“These are absolutely dangerous environments,” Dr. Chiampas said. “If people listen to this really, really important message, hopefully we can avoid some really unfortunate and sad outcomes.”

If you think you have frostbite, avoid using a heating pad or hot water, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns: If the affected area is numb, you could get burned. Until you can see a doctor, immerse the area in warm water, change into dry warm clothes, and use blankets and body heat, such as tucking fingers into armpits.

The C.D.C. warns against walking on frostbitten feet or toes or massaging affected areas, which can increase damage.

When the body is exposed to the cold for prolonged periods, it begins to lose heat faster than it can produce it, according to the C.D.C. Wet conditions are especially dangerous, even in relatively warmer temperatures. A low body temperature renders major organs incapable of functioning properly, and can be deadly. Seniors and others with poor circulation are particularly vulnerable.

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