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Surviving Extreme Cold Weather

Tips to protect against serious health problems resulting from prolonged exposure to the cold.

Health officials offer tips on dealing with extreme cold. (Photo by Michelle Peirano)
Health officials offer tips on dealing with extreme cold. (Photo by Michelle Peirano)
Written by Lorrie Andrew-Spear, Virginia Department of Health

When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced, causing cold-weather health problems such as frostbite and hypothermia. To lower your risk of illness:
  •  Wear cold weather appropriate clothing like gloves/mittens, hats, scarves and snow boots. Dress in several layers of loose-fitting clothing and cover your face and mouth if possible.
  • Be aware of the wind chill factor. Wind can cause body-heat loss.
  • Stay dry. If you become wet, remove any wet clothing immediately.
  • Limit your time outdoors.
  • Do not ignore shivering. It's an important first sign that the body is losing heat. Persistent shivering is a signal to return indoors.

Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body. Severe cases may result in digit or limb amputation.

At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin—frostbite may be beginning. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite: a white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy and numbness.

The victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb. If you suspect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care.

Hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature caused when your body is losing heat faster than it can be produced. Warning signs in adults may include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech or drowsiness. In infants, warning signs may include bright red, cold skin or very low energy.

If you notice signs of hypothermia, take the person's temperature. If the temperature is below 95 degrees, the situation is an emergency. Seek medical attention immediately.

  • A special note from the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department Chief of Police: Neighbors, the National Weather Service is calling for some of the coldest temperatures that we have seen in Washington D.C. for quite some time. With that being said, I am going to ask for your help in looking after some of our less fortunate residents. Please be on the look out for the elderly, others that may not have heat, those that do not have a roof over their heads, and our pets. If you know a neighbor without heat or if you run across a homeless person and they need assistance please call our hypothermia hotline at (202) 399-7093 or 1 (800) 535-7252 to get them the needed aid. Also, please don't forget to bring all of your pets indoors. As a team we can remain vigilant and ensure that the less fortunate can endure the coming cold weather. Thank you for your assistance. -Cathy L. Lanier, Chief of Police

Additional information on dealing with extreme cold is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) athttp://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/guide.asp.

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