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Monongahela Valley Hospital Offers Advice on How to Stay Safe in Cold Weather

(February 6, 2013 - Carroll Township, Pa.)

When "Punxsutawney Phil" emerged from his dwelling at Gobbler's Knob on Feb. 2, he did not see his shadow and the crowd cheered with his prediction of an early spring. However, according to the calendar, it is still February and cold weather and snow remain in the forecast. Dropping temperatures bring with them the risk of frostbite and hypothermia.

When the thermometer dips below freezing and gusting winds create dangerous wind chill readings, if human skin is exposed to these cold temperatures or cold, wet conditions for a prolonged period of time, frostbite can occur. The extremities freeze much faster than other body parts that may be closer to the heart and the central heat of the body. Fingers, toes, ears and the nose are the most susceptible areas for frostbite.

Brenda L. Walther, M.D., director of Emergency Medicine at Monongahela Valley Hospital, emphasized that frostbite is easily preventable. "It is important to keep skin covered and avoid exposure to extremely low temperatures," she said. "Wear warm boots with socks on your feet and gloves or mittens on your hands. Keep your head covered, and if possible, cover your face with a loose fitting scarf paying careful attention to keep your field of vision clear."

Symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Whitening of the skin which takes place as the body draws blood away from the extremities in order to keep vital organs warm.
  • Decreased feeling in the affected body part because of the lessened blood flow. There also may be a feeling of numbness as the freezing deepens.

"Frostbite is closely associated with the burning of the skin and should be treated as such," said Dr. Walther. "To prevent skin damage, do not rub the affected area. Warm the affected area by moving indoors or by placing the area under warm - not hot - water. Do not try to move the frozen extremity until it is sufficiently warmed."

Cold exposure that's severe enough to cause frostbite can also cause hypothermia. When body temperatures drop below 95 degrees, the heart, nervous system and other organs do not work correctly. Left untreated, hypothermia eventually leads to complete failure of the heart and respiratory system and to ultimately death. Hypothermia begins with shivering and as it worsens, a loss of consciousness occurs.

The elderly and children are most susceptible to hypothermia, but it can affect anyone who spends extended periods of time in frigid temperatures. There are a number of precautions that can be taken to avoid hypothermia and its potentially fatal effects. These include:

  • Wearing adequate clothing - several layers are more effective because of the insulating warm air that is created between each layer.
  • Covering the head because much of the body's heat escapes through the head.
  • Covering all extremities such as hands, fingers, feet, ears and nose so as not to lose body heat.

"If it is necessary to be outside in the cold, take frequent breaks indoors to warm your body," said Dr. Walther. "Drink hot or warm fluids, but avoid alcohol which dulls perception of the cold and increases the loss of body heat."

The early stages of hypothermia can be remedied through the warming of the body by moving indoors, breathing warm air and drinking warm fluids. Seek medical treatment immediately for severe cases of hypothermia -- which might include the loss of consciousness.

"As with any injury where there is a question regarding treatment, consult your physician and if the condition requires immediate attention, remember that our Emergency Department is available 24/7," added Dr. Walther.

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