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
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.
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."
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:
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.
Other Cold-Weather Survival Tips
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.
©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
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