When the thermometer dips into sub-freezing or even sub-zero territory, health officials say the air becomes dangerous.
Being exposed to such arctic temperatures, even for a relatively short period of time, could leave children, the elderly and adults susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite says Bryn Mawr Hospital emergency medicine physician Dr. Leonard Ulan, Jr.
“If you are looking at wind chills below zero, then you need to consider that frostbite could set in within a matter of minutes,” he said.
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With frostbite, your skin and the tissue underneath freezes, cutting off blood flow. The skin will start to turn gray or white and the damage could be irreversible – sometimes resulting in the loss of ears, a nose, fingers or limbs.
Ulan says keeping your skin covered and dry is the first line of defense against such damage.
“If you do get wet you are at increased risk, so if gloves or boots get wet you are at risk for both frostbite and hypothermia,” he said. “Make sure you have weather resistant, water resistant clothing and if it is not precipitating, just make sure you have on multiple layers and all your skin is protected.”
Children are some of the most susceptible individuals to both frostbite and hypothermia. He says allowing kids to be outside in arctic air for more than a few minutes is not a good idea.
“If it’s zero degrees with wind…it could just take 5, 10, 15 minutes to develop early frostbite. I wouldn’t leave them at a bus stop for more than a few minutes,” he said.
The elderly are another group at risk in the extreme weather. The thermostat should be set to 68-degrees or higher in homes where older individuals are living, according to Ulan. The doctor says it’s important to keep a keen eye on how they are acting because medications could be masking the symptoms of hypothermia.
“You and I would probably start shivering [if we were cold]. Sometimes elderly people, because of the medicine they are on, don’t shiver,” he says. “Sometimes the only symptoms they might have are they are acting confused or sluggish.”
For healthy adults, Ulan says avoid alcohol and drug use because they can dull a person’s senses. Dressing properly and being prepared for any condition is also vital.
“If you are going to drive in the snow, make sure you have a blanket in your car and make sure you have enough warm clothing,” he said. “You can handle cold weather if you are properly dressed and prepared. Most of the problems we have are when people don’t prepare.”
Should you experience symptoms of hypothermia or frostbite, it’s best to seek medical attention immediately. For frostbite, the Mayo Clinic suggests gradually warming the frostbitten areas and try not to use fingers or toes that are affected.