Serious cold-related injuries and health risks can occur when your body loses its ability to warm itself, or hypothermia. Hypothermia can result in permanent tissue damage or even death if the warning signs are ignored. Hypothermia can slowly overcome a patient who has been chilled by low temperatures, a brisk wind or wet clothing.
“What can occur with hypothermia is that the onset can happen gradually, and that’s the real danger,” warns Dr. Gail D’Onofrio, medical director, department of emergency medicine at Yale New Haven Hospital. “People often can think they are just cold and will gradually warm up but when that doesn’t happen due to prolonged exposure to cold weather, wind or wet clothing, hypothermia can quickly move in and effect a person without their realizing it. It then becomes imperative for that person to seek out medical treatment by understanding the warning signs.”
Those signs can include fatigue, drowsiness, uncontrolled shivering, cool bluish skin, slurred speech, clumsy movements as well as irritable or irrational and confused behavior.
Dr. D’Onofrio warns that as the colder weather approaches this weekend, those who work outside are the ones most likely to fall victim to inclement weather. Prolonged exposure to the elements can place a person in danger of frostbite, which usually affects the extremities like fingers, toes, hands, feet, ears and the nose. “Frostbite is the deep freezing of layers of skin and tissue where the skin becomes hard and numb, and can look pale and waxy white,” said D’Onofrio. “This is extremely dangerous and requires immediate medical attention.”
People can help protect themselves and those they work with by following some simple yet important guidelines during the winter months:
- Be aware of changing weather conditions and prepare for them.
- Learn the signs of hypothermia and frostbite and the first aid procedures for their treatment. Especially important for people who work outside for prolonged periods.
- Select proper clothing for cold, wet or windy weather. A hat and gloves will help keep extremities warm while layers of clothing make it easier to adjust to fluctuating temperatures and conditions.
- The colder the weather, the more often you should take short breaks in warm, dry shelter to allow your body to warm up.
- Whenever, possible, schedule outdoor activity for the warmest part of the day.
- Your body uses energy to keep muscles warm so avoid fatigue or exhaustion.
- Keep your body energized with warm, sweet beverages such as cocoa or sports drinks and warm, high calorie foods like pasta. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
- Finally, use the buddy system. Always work with at least one other person and test each other on your knowledge of the symptoms and treatment of cold related illnesses.
Following a month so far with temperatures averaging 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, temperatures this weekend are projected to plunge to 10-20 degrees below normal. Temperatures will be 30 degrees lower this weekend, when compared to highs during this mid-week time period. The wind and other factors will make it feel even colder. Temperatures will dip to 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit lower than the actual temperature at times. This will translate to temperatures that feel well below zero over the interior Northeast during much of the weekend and barely above zero for a few hours during the afternoon hours along the southern Connecticut shoreline.
Yale New Haven Hospital (YNHH), part of Yale New Haven Health, is a nationally recognized, 1,541-bed, not-for-profit hospital serving as the primary teaching hospital for the Yale School of Medicine (YSM). Founded as the fourth voluntary hospital in the U.S. in 1826, today, YNHH has two New Haven-based campuses, and also includes Yale New Haven Children's Hospital, Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital and Smilow Cancer Hospital. YNHH has received Magnet designation from the American Nurses Credentialing Center, the nation’s highest honor of nursing excellence. YNHH has a combined medical staff of about 4,500 university and community physicians practicing in more than 100 specialties. www.ynhh.org