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Lourdes Emergency Medicine Expert Gives Tips for Coping with the Cold

If you’re outdoors at all this weekend, keep in mind that the cold weather and frigid wind chills can be dangerous to your health if you’re outside too long.

Alfred Sacchetti, MD, chief of Emergency Medicine at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, says prolonged exposure can lead to frostbite and hypothermia.   These conditions can be life-threatening if not treated.

“On frigid days, it’s best to limit outdoor activity as much as possible,” says Dr. Sacchetti.   “Exposed skin can rapidly chill, leading to decreased blood flow and a drop in body temperature.”

Frostbite occurs when ice crystals form on the skin or deeper tissue. The fingers, toes, ears, nose, chin and cheeks are usually the first body parts to be affected. Then muscles or other tissues can become numb.

“Frostbite starts with tingling or stinging sensations,” says Dr. Sacchetti. “Additional signs include redness and pain in the skin. The skin can turn a white or grayish-yellow color, feel waxy and be numb.”

Hypothermia often goes hand-in-hand with frostbite, says Dr. Sacchetti. Prolonged exposure to the cold can cause the body’s core temperature to drop below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (normal body temperature is 98.6).

The body shivers to produce heat through muscle activity and blood vessels temporarily narrow. Eventually, the heart and liver produce less heat, effectively shutting down to preserve whatever warmth is left and protect the brain. Breathing, heart rate and brain activity slow. Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, slow, shallow breathing, weak pulse, confusion and memory loss, drowsiness or exhaustion, slurred or mumbled speech, and loss of coordination.

In severe cases, a person with hypothermia may fall unconscious. The skin may be dark  and puffy, and the muscles rigid. In infants, signs include bright red, cold skin and low energy.

“Anyone who is exposed to cold temperatures for long periods are at risk for frostbite and hypothermia,” says Dr. Sacchetti. “Children are particularly vulnerable as they lose heat from their skin faster and don’t want to go inside when they’re having fun. Also at risk are the elderly, those with diabetes, heart or vascular problems, and people who use drugs and alcohol.”

To prevent hypothermia, avoid conditions that cause heat loss. Follow the acronym C.O.L.D.:

  • Cover up: Wear a hat or other protective covering to prevent body heat loss from your head, face and neck. Wear mittens instead of gloves because the fingers stay warmer when next to each other.
  • Overexertion: Avoid activities that cause you to sweat a lot. This can cause you to lose body heat more quickly.
  • Layers: Dress in layers. Wear loose-fitting, layered, light-weight clothing. Wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers hold body heat better than cotton. The outermost layer should be non-permeable to minimize the effects of strong winds.
  • Dry. Stay as warm and dry as possible. Wear an extra pair of socks and properly fitted, insulated winter boots. The boots should have treads on the sole for traction. If you do get wet, get out of the clothing as soon as possible.

Also, eat well, including plenty of carbohydrates such as pasta, potatoes, and bread for fuel. Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and fight off the cold.

If you or another person is suffering from frostbite, get to an emergency room as soon as possible. If medical care isn’t immediately available, Dr. Sacchetti recommends:

  • Get the person into a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Unless absolutely necessary, do not allow the person to walk on frostbitten feet or toes. Walking can increase the damage.
  • Give the person a warm drink (but not alcohol or caffeine) and wrap a blanket around him or her.
  • Immerse the affected area in warm–NOT hot–water.
  • Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
  • Do not rub or massage the affected skin. This can cause more damage. Do not place the frostbitten skin in snow to “warm” it.
  • Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp or the heat of a stove, fireplace or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.

If the person shows signs of hypothermia, seek emergency treatment immediately.

“Pay attention to your own body,” says Dr. Sacchetti. “Don’t ignore shivering–it’s one of the first signs of danger that your body is losing heat. If you continue to shiver, go indoors.”



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