Feature Archive

Cold Weather Survival 101

How to keep yourself, your loved ones, and your neighbors (even your pets) safe and warm -- both outdoors and indoors.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Every year, a cold snap makes parts of the nation snap to attention, seemingly caught off guard. Every year, people complain that it's never been colder. And every year, the cold leaves someone injured, or worse. But this year, there's something you can do about it (if you follow a little good advice).

There are big health risks when the temperature dips -- risks to infants, the elderly, travelers, sportsmen, and pets. For tips on staying warm, talk to the people who work outside -- doormen, utility workers, farmers, and police officers. And listen to those familiar with colder climates. A Northern friend, for example, recommends showering in the morning to preserve body heat in the cooler nighttime hours.

Public health officials in the windy city of Chicago -- where the temps regularly drop into single digits and wind chills hit 20 or 30 below zero -- give WebMD readers a few more survival tips.

Frostbite

No. 1 concern: "Frostbite," says John Wilhelm, MD, Chicago's commissioner of public health. Wind chill, wet clothing, alcohol consumption, poor circulation, weariness, and some medications can make people more vulnerable to frostbite. Symptoms include tingling sensations on your nose, ears, toes, and fingers as well as red skin (early stage), whitened skin (middle stage), hard skin (severe), blisters, and blackened tissue (severe, gangrenous stage).

If you do get frostbitten, warm the skin gradually, Wilhelm tells WebMD. "If it's your fingertips, put them under your arms; cover your ears. The most important thing is not to rub the traumatized skin. You can create more damage."

Hypothermia

Another big worry: hypothermia, when the body's core temperature drops. "Hypothermia doesn't happen in a matter of minutes like frostbite, but slowly over several hours of exposure to cold," Wilhelm says. The possible result: coma and death. Wearing wet clothing or being immersed in cold water for any length of time heightens that risk.

Signs of hypothermia are slurred speech, slow pulse, loss of coordination, loss of bladder control, stiff muscles, a puffy face, and mental confusion. If you suspect hypothermia, call 911 immediately. "Get to an emergency room," Wilhelm says.

To ward off frostbite and hypothermia:

  • Wear layers of warm, dry clothing, including hat and gloves. "Clothing insulates the body to keep body heat in," says Elizabeth McCullough, PhD, a textiles professor at Kansas State University. "Clothing isn't generating heat; it's a barrier between the warm body and the cold environment."

    Coats and jackets made of fiberfill or down are efficient at trapping lots of air in one garment, "which is OK," she tells WebMD. "But layering traps extra air between fabric layers. And as you become more active, you can remove a layer." Also, the jacket's outer layer should be water resistant. Sock liners that keep moisture away from feet also help keep feet warm. Wear mittens, not gloves, to keep hands warm.

    And don't forget your legs. "You see it all the time," McCullough says. "People have six layers on the torso, yet one thin pair of jeans. It's much better to have a few layers on as much of the body surface as possible."

    A hat -- "even a tiny, little hat" -- makes a tremendous difference in keeping body heat from escaping, McCullough says. "Otherwise, it's like a bucket with a hole in the bottom."
  • Drink lots of water and other nonalcoholic beverages like tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and soup; it will help keep body temperature stable.

Home Safety

Home heating devices and carbon monoxide poisoning are other wintertime worries. "Space heaters make fire departments nervous," Wilhelm tells WebMD. "Every year, curtains get ignited. If you keep them at least a foot away from draperies or flammable things, they're OK. But we don't encourage using them."

Carbon monoxide, on the other hand, is more insidious. It is odorless and highly toxic, and it can either poison you quickly or build up in your blood gradually, causing headaches, nausea, even coma and death.

  • Don't use a gas oven if the heat goes out. Gas ovens may go out or not burn efficiently, leading to carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • When buying a kerosene heater, make sure it has a low center of gravity to make accidental tipovers unlikely. Carefully read and follow all safety directions, including keeping small children away from the heater and instructing them not to touch the controls. Since kerosene heaters have an open flame, do not use flammable solvents or sprays in the same room. Never leave a heater on when unattended.
  • To prevent buildup of carbon monoxide inside your home, have your furnace and heating appliances checked every year. Never operate grills or motor vehicles in garages or carports. Do not use your dryer or oven as a heating source. Move items away from your furnace. Install a carbon monoxide detector or check an already-existing detector.

Other Cold-Weather Survival Tips

  • Don't shovel your own sidewalks and driveway unless you're physically fit. "Even if you think you're physically fit, we still caution that you let kids do it," Wilhelm says. "If you have a desk job, a factory job, any sudden intense aerobic exercise like shoveling -- even if it's a couple inches of snow -- can put you at risk of heart attack."
  • When traveling or enjoying outdoor winter activities, follow some extra precautions. Make sure someone knows your route and prepare for the worst possible conditions. Carry a first aid kit. Talk to your pharmacist about the effects of freezing temperatures on medications. Bring a sleeping bag rated for cold-weather camping. A snack of trail mix -- nuts, seeds, dried fruits -- or candy and a jug of water or thermos of a nonalcoholic drink like hot chocolate or soup can help maintain body temperature.
  • Pets living outdoors need special care. An animal that is accustomed to being outside will handle cold temperatures better than one that is not. However, outdoor animals need dry bedding and a shelter that is large enough to stand, sit, turn around, and lie down in -- but not so large that body heat is lost. Giving outdoor animals extra food during cold temperatures will help them cope better.
  • Look in on elderly neighbors. "If our 1995 heat wave had a lesson for me, it was how isolated so many people can be," Wilhelm says. "So many elderly people don't have children around anymore, and neighbors have moved away. If you know someone is alone, check on them."

Originally published Dec. 28, 2000.

Medically updated Jan. 15, 2004.


SOURCES: John Wilhelm, MD, commissioner of public health, Chicago. Elizabeth McCullough, PhD, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 3:08:16 AM