Beat 4 Winter Blues
You should know these exposure-related cold-weather dangers — and what to do about them.
Remember how your mother always told you to bundle up in the wintertime with scarf, mittens and hat? She had a point. Prolonged skin exposure to cold and wind can lead to a number of health complications. “The most important advice during cold weather is dressing in warm, dry layers in order to be able to remove layers as one becomes warm, and to avoid sweating and wet clothing,” says Christine DeFranco, D.O., an emergency medicine physician at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. Here are four winter conditions related to the cold, how to spot them and what can be done to treat them:
- HYPOTHERMIA is when your body temperature falls from 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit to 95 or lower. It can happen to anyone who’s exposed to cold temperatures for even a short time, and is especially common in young children or elderly people who keep their heat at home below 65 degrees, according to the Bergen County Department of Health Services.
Symptoms: The first and most common symptom is violent shivering, but other side effects include loss of consciousness, bluish skin, labored breathing and drowsiness.
What to do: “Mild hypothermia can be managed by removing wet clothing and replacing it with warm, dry clothing and moving to a warm, dry environment,” says Dr. DeFranco. But call a medical professional, she says, if the patient experiences “confusion, a change in skin color, shallow breathing or slurred speech.”
- FROSTBITE is most common in outdoor workers who aren’t dressed properly for the cold, but anyone is susceptible. It’s an injury to the body that causes a loss of feeling and color in the affected areas, often the toes, nose, fingers, chin, ears or cheeks. A milder state called frostnip precedes it; if this is not treated, frostbite can follow.
Symptoms: Warning signs of frostbite include numbness in the area, a tingling or burning sensation and discoloration of the skin.
What to do: Management for this condition is contingent upon its severity, Dr. DeFranco notes, meaning that frostnip likely won’t warrant a trip to the ED. Still, get into a warm room as soon as possible, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises. Then expose the area to warm (not hot!) water, and place it against a warm part of the body (for example, insert frostbitten fingers under your arms). Be careful not to rub the affected region in the warm water, as this can cause more damage. If feeling and color in the frostbitten area don’t return after this treatment, contact your healthcare provider ASAP.
- CHILBLAINS are small, itchy patches that can appear on the skin after exposure to extreme cold. They most often pop up on the face, ears and extremities.
Symptoms: Affected areas will be red, swollen, itchy and hot to the touch. They don’t typically occur right away, but appear about 12 to 24 hours after exposure.
What to do: Chilblains can typically be treated at home by warming the skin with lukewarm water. Dr. DeFranco also recommends lotion to “moisturize the skin and relieve itchiness,” as scratching will irritate it more. Call your doctor if the condition doesn’t improve.
- NON-FREEZING COLD INJURY is an umbrella term used to describe tissue damage caused by sustained exposure to wet, cold (but not freezing) conditions, typically in the range of 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The most common type of non-freezing cold injury is immersion foot, also known as trench foot, caused when the feet are wet for long periods.
Symptoms: Swelling, numbness, redness, cramping or blisters in the foot or leg are warning signs to look out for.
What to do: For immediate relief, remove wet socks and shoes as soon as you get inside, and avoid walking until the symptoms subside. But seek medical attention immediately, Dr. DeFranco warns; a doctor can examine the foot, ease pain and help you prevent long-term tissue damage.