The temperature is dropping and the mountains are filling with snow. Love it or hate it, cold weather is here—and with it, can come some cause for concern. That doesn’t mean stay in and stay warm, it just means be aware of cold-weather risks (like hypothermia, frostbite and Raynaud's disease), and be informed about prevention and treatments to stay safe.
Whether you’re hiking in the mountains or skiing in the backcountry, hypothermia can be a serious threat. It happens when your body loses heat faster than it is produced. This heat loss is usually caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in cold water. Hypothermia becomes an emergency when your temperature drops below 95° F (normal body temperature is around 98.6° F). Without treatment, it can lead to heart and respiratory failure, and in some cases, death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), warning signs include:
- Confusion and fumbling hands
- Memory loss or slurred speech
If you notice any of these signs in yourself or someone else, get medical attention immediately. Until help arrives, the Mayo Clinic recommends the following first-aid measures:
- Get out of the cold and move to a warm, dry location
- Remove any wet clothing
- Warm up with blankets, coats or skin-to-skin contact
- Drink warm, nonalcoholic beverages to help increase body temperature
- Be gentle and limit movements to only those necessary
Quick tip: Follow the forecast
When heading outdoors, always check the forecast first. If you know cold temperatures, high winds, rain or snow are in the forecast, you can prepare for the conditions.
Frostbite is a serious condition caused by exposure to cold temperatures and, according to the Mayo Clinic, your risk increases when temperatures dip below 5° F. Believe it or not, this is your body’s way of protecting you. It cuts circulation to your extremities—your nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes—in an attempt to increase blood flow to your more vital inner organs.
Exposed skin in cold, windy weather is most vulnerable to frostbite. But without proper protection, it can even happen to skin covered by gloves or other clothing. Once frostbite sets in, it can cause permanent damage.
According to the CDC, these are your warning signs:
- Painful, firm or waxy skin
- Red, white or grayish-yellow skin color
If you notice any of these symptoms, see a doctor as soon as possible. In the meantime, the Mayo Clinic recommends the following first-aid measures:
- Get out of the cold immediately
- Protect any exposed skin
- Avoid walking on frostbitten feet or toes, if possible
- Gently rewarm frostbitten areas in warm water (99° F–108° F) for 15 to 30 minutes
Quick tip: Protect your head, hands and feet
When it's cold outside—particularly when it dips below 32° F—blood flow is concentrated in your body's core, leaving your head, hands and feet vulnerable to frostbite. Always be prepared with the proper gloves, socks, shoes, hat and scarf or ski mask.
If you think you have frostbite, a 98point6 doctor can diagnose your condition and get you the help you need. You can even show him or her your affected areas by sending pictures. However, if it’s an emergency, call 9-1-1 immediately.
For some people, cold weather can trigger symptoms of Raynaud's disease. Raynaud's is an autoimmune disorder characterized by small arteries that become narrow, limiting blood circulation to fingers, toes, nose and ears. This lesser-known condition is often dismissed as poor circulation. In a sense that's true, but if the patient is actually suffering from Raynaud’s, that poor circulation can be serious. In severe cases, the affected areas may develop sores and infections, which can potentially lead to gangrene (the death of tissue, caused by inadequate blood flow or infection).
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of Raynaud's include:
- Cold fingers or toes
- Color changes in skin in response to cold or stress—usually a white color first, followed by blue
- Numb, prickly feeling or stinging pain upon warming
If you notice any of these symptoms, gently warm your fingers and toes:
- Get indoors or to a warmer area
- Wiggle your fingers and toes
- Place your hands under armpits
- Make wide circles (windmills) with your arms
- Run warm (not hot) water over your fingers and toes
- Massage your hands and feet
Quick tip: Layer, layer, layer
A good rule of thumb is this: wear an inner layer to wick away moisture, a middle layer to insulate your body, and an outer waterproof layer to shield you from the elements.
If you think you may have Raynaud's, talk with a 98point6 doctor. Our doctors can help assess your symptoms and give you advice on the best course of action.
Cold-weather hazards like hypothermia, frostbite and Raynaud's disease can be serious threats if you’re unprepared. But being informed about risk prevention and emergency treatment can help you stay safe when the temperatures drop. For additional tips and treatment information, keep an eye out for more seasonal blogs from 98point6.