Boston, MA (PressExposure) February 18, 2011 -- In addition to accumulating snow, extremely cold temperatures are in the forecast. "Extreme cold is a dangerous situation that can bring on health emergencies in susceptible people, such as those without shelter or who are stranded, or who live in a home that is poorly insulated or without heat," said Ron Walls, MD, chairman of Emergency Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. The most common cold-related health issues include hypothermia and frostbite. The elderly and infants are particularly at risk, but anyone can be affected.
If you suspect you or another person is suffering from frostbite or hypothermia, go someplace warm and seek medical help immediately, or call 911. If medical help is unavailable, use a blanket to re-warm by starting at the core of the body.
Dr. Walls provides some tips to avoid cold weather ailments:
Dress in the right layers. Dress in a fabric that will keep sweat away from your body and layer with something that is light weight and warm, such as wool or fleece. Wear an outer layer that is waterproof and windproof.
Remember to cover your head, and everywhere else. A recent study debunked the myth that more heat is lost through the head than other parts of the body. Any exposed part of the body causes heat loss.
Protect your hands. Wear warm gloves or mittens at all times. Be sure the outer shell of your mittens or gloves is waterproof.
Keep feet warm. The feet are a common area for frostbite. Wear warm socks made of a fabric such as polypropylene, which will prevent feet from getting wet with sweat. Be sure that your boots are waterproof.
Use heat warmers. Disposable toe and hand warmers can be placed in mittens, shoes, and pockets to contribute heat.
Cover your mouth. Use a scarf or face mask to cover your mouth to warm the air before breathing it. Be especially mindful of this if breathing cold air causes chest pain or if you are prone to upper respiratory problems.
Keep clothing dry. Clothing that is damp or wet from perspiration or precipitation significantly increases body-heat loss.
Stay hydrated. Dehydration affects your body's ability to regulate body heat and increases the risk of frostbite. Fluids, especially water, are as important in cold weather as in the heat. Avoid consuming alcohol or beverages containing caffeine, because these items are dehydrating.
Avoid Alcohol. Alcohol dilates blood vessels, which increases heat loss. Alcohol can also impair judgment and sensation, slowing or lowering the trigger telling you that your body is experiencing extreme cold. Do NOT consume alcohol or caffeine if experiencing frostbite or hypothermia, as both can worsen the condition.
Help Others. Infants and the elderly are at increased risk of hypothermia and frostbite. Check on vulnerable friends, relatives and neighbors to ensure they are adequately protected from the cold and encourage elders and those with children to stay indoors if possible.
Be aware of carbon Monoxide Poisoning. Cold weather can often lead to power outages. It is important to never use generators in your home, your basement or your garage as they could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Learn the warning signs of common cold-weather ailments:
Hypothermia - Prolonged exposure to cold means that heat will leave your body more quickly and can eventually use up your body's stored energy which results in hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Low body temperature affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. Warnings signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. For infants, symptoms include bright red, cold skin and very low energy.
Frostbite - Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. It causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas and most commonly affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The first sign of frostbite is redness or pain in any skin area. If you experience this, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin. Additional symptoms include a white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy and numbness. If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. You can start warming the frostbitten parts using body heat, for example sticking it in a warm armpit, or submerging in warm (not hot!) water.
Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) is a 777-bed nonprofit teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School and a founding member of Partners HealthCare, an integrated health care delivery network. In July of 2008, the hospital opened the Carl J. and Ruth Shapiro Cardiovascular Center, the most advanced center of its kind. BWH is committed to excellence in patient care with expertise in virtually every specialty of medicine and surgery. The BWH medical preeminence dates back to 1832, and today that rich history in clinical care is coupled with its national leadership in quality improvement and patient safety initiatives and its dedication to educating and training the next generation of health care professionals. Through investigation and discovery conducted at its Biomedical Research Institute (BRI), BWH is an international leader in basic, clinical and translational research on human diseases, involving more than 860 physician-investigators and renowned biomedical scientists and faculty supported by more than $416 M in funding. BWH is also home to major landmark epidemiologic population studies, including the Nurses' and Physicians' Health Studies and the Women's Health Initiative. For more information about BWH, please visit Brigham and Women's Hospital