Weather Updates

Health tips for dealing with extreme cold

Updated: February 7, 2014 6:18AM

Cold weather can have a chilling effect on health. Not only can it compromise an already distressed respiratory system, the bitter cold can cause hypothermia and frostbite.

Information provided by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., warns that arctic temperatures can be very troublesome for people with lung problems.

According to the clinic, “For the more than 800,000 Illinois residents who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD,) winter can be the worst season as cold air constricts airways and higher virus levels can cause illness, further aggravating symptoms.”

COPD — a group of lung diseases that include emphysema, chronic bronchitis and some types of asthma — is the third-leading cause of U.S. deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with more women than men who are diagnosed with and die from the disease.

Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) Director Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck warns Illinois residents that hypothermia and frostbite can cause serious injury and death.

While the best prevention for both is to stay inside, avoiding the outdoors sometimes is impossible.

“With more arctic weather forecasted for Illinois, it is important to recognize the signs of hypothermia and frostbite, how to treat these conditions, and what you can do to avoid them,” said Hasbrouck. “Everyone should take precautions against hypothermia, but infants and the elderly are particularly at risk and should be monitored closely.”

Hypothermia is a drop in body temperature to 95 degrees or less and can be fatal if not detected promptly and treated properly. The condition usually develops over a period, anywhere from a few days to several weeks.

Even consistent, mildly cool indoor temperatures of between 60 and 65 degrees can trigger hypothermia. So the IDPH recommends setting the thermostat above 65 degrees and checking on elderly friends and neighbors frequently to ensure their homes are adequately heated.

Infants lose body heat more quickly than adults, and the elderly often make less body heat because of a slower metabolism and less physical activity.

Signs of hypothermia include forgetfulness, drowsiness, slurred speech, weak pulse, slow heartbeat, shallow breathing and a coma or death-like appearance.

If a person’s temperature drops below 95 degrees, call a doctor or ambulance, or take the victim directly to a hospital. A drop in temperature below 90 degrees can create a life-threatening situation.

To prevent further heat loss, wrap the person in a warm blanket and apply a hot water bottle or electric heating pad (on a low setting) to the person’s abdomen. If the person is alert, give small quantities of warm food or drink.

Do not give a hypothermia victim a hot shower or bath; it could cause shock. Do not try to treat hypothermia at home. The condition should be treated in a hospital, Hasbrouck advised.


The other winter condition — frostbite — can be extremely painful and result in the loss of extremities.

Dr. Matthew Stilson, an emergency physician Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, said the early stages of frostbite, known as superficial frostbite, are characterized by a tingling or burning sensation in one’s extremities. The skin might look red or flushed.

The skin also will appear whitish and stiff, and the area will feel numb rather than painful.

Frostbite typically affects exposed areas of the face (cheeks, nose, chin, and forehead), the ears, wrists, hands and feet.

To treat frostbite, warm the affected part of the body gradually.

Wrap the frostbitten area in blankets, sweaters, coats, etc. If no warm wrappings are available, place frostbitten hands under armpits or next to other warm skin and seek medical attention immediately.

Do not rub frostbitten areas. The friction can damage the tissue.

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