(CLEVELAND CLINIC) – When temperatures take a dive into the teens and single digits, it can be really uncomfortable to go outside.
But, according to Tom Waters, M.D., an emergency department physician at Cleveland Clinic, frigid temperatures can escalate into a dangerous situation quickly if we’re not prepared for the cold.
One of the biggest threats to our health in bitter temps is hypothermia.
“When someone starts to become hypothermic they begin shivering; they may be stomping their feet and moving around a lot,” said Dr. Waters. “That’s usually followed by a slowing phase – when they start to get lethargic, maybe have slurred speech; they can even start to have a little trouble walking.”
Dr. Waters said the amount of time that it takes to become hypothermic depends on the temperature, as well the duration of time spent outside, and whether the person is wet or dry.
“The ambient temperature is important, but also the condition of the person,” said Dr. Waters. “If they’re wet, they can get colder much quicker. Water conducts heat much faster than air, so if somebody has fallen in the water, or they’re wet or sweaty because they’re working, they can get cold much, much quicker.”
Dr. Waters said it’s important to remember that a person doesn’t necessarily have to be outdoors to suffer hypothermia, as it can happen if the temperature gets cold enough inside of a home.
He said infants and the elderly, as well as those with chronic illness are most susceptible to suffering hypothermia.
The other big danger in frigid weather is frostbite.
When it comes to frostbite, Dr. Waters said the keys to staying safe are being prepared and paying attention to the forecast.
“You want to cover up exposed areas that you can, such as your fingers and ears,” said Dr. Waters. “Some things are harder to cover, like the nose, but there are face masks that you can buy that you can wear if you know you’re going to be out working in the cold.”
Dr. Waters said if a person has had frostbite before, they may be more susceptible to get it again.
If a person begins to show signs of hypothermia or frostbite, he said they need to be taken to a warm area and seek medical attention right away.