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Your Healthy Family: Avoiding frostbite and hypothermia

Posted at 9:15 AM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 11:15:31-05

CLEVELAND, OHIO — When temperatures dip – extreme cold can make the outdoors go from uncomfortable, to dangerous, in an instant.

According to Baruch Fertel, M.D., of Cleveland Clinic, prolonged exposure to the cold puts people at high risk for frostbite.

He said frostbite occurs when a limb, or a body part, is exposed to the cold for an extended period of time and sustains tissue damage.

“Frostbite is a continuum, and early cold injuries would be accompanied by redness and pain, and then as it progresses and becomes more severe, it would almost turn white, and become painless,” said Dr. Fertel. “Beyond that, skin would start turning colors and become dark, signaling a real medical emergency.”

Anytime you have reddening of the skin that becomes painful, and then becomes painless – it’s time to get out of the cold and seek emergency care.

Dr. Fertel said people with certain conditions, such as diabetes, vascular disease or neuropathy, might not be able to recognize they are becoming too cold, so they need to be especially careful in chilly conditions.

Hypothermia can also occur when our core body temperature drops very low – and can dangerous, if not fatal.

If you have to be outside, Dr. Fertel said being prepared and dressing appropriately is the key to staying safe.

Always dress in layers - with gloves and boots; keep dry, and keep your face covered.

And wearing a warm winter hat is a must.

“We lose a lot of heat in our head, and it’s important to make sure that our head is protected,” said Dr. Fertel. “Especially children, because their heads are a much larger proportion of their body surface area.”

Very young children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to cold injury, but Dr. Fertel said even healthy and fit people need to take precautions.

If you begin to shiver, it’s time to get out of the cold.

“Shivering is an early warning mechanism to try to create some friction, so that you can warm up,” said Dr. Fertel. “If you stop shivering, that’s a problem, and should prompt medical attention.”