Your Body's Polar Vortex Survival Guide
Judging by the first 22 days, it looks like 2014 is the year of the polar vortex—a period of persistent extreme cold that can span several time zones. And as of today,it’s back.
Despite the science fiction-worthy name, prolonged exposure to extreme cold temperatures can pose a serious threat to your health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 700 people die in each year in the U.S. due to the dangerous effects of hypothermia. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe:
Watch out for the “umbles.” With wind chills well below zero, hypothermia—or what happens when your body temp drops below 95° F—isn’t out of the question. “Watch out for the ‘umbles': stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles,” says Rob Danoff, DO, program director of the family and emergency medicine residency program at Aria Health in Philadelphia. Those symptoms, along with uncontrolled shivering, are the earliest signs of hypothermia.
Know the difference between frostbite and frostnip. Frostbite happens when tiny ice crystals begin to form on and underneath your skin, ultimately damaging and potentially killing the tissue around it if not taken care of. Your tell-tale signs: burning, itching, sharp pain, and discoloration. Frostnip, on the other hand, is the earliest stage of frostbite, usually characterized by a small white dot on the tip of the nose or fingers. Frostnip usually doesn’t cause permanent damage, if warmed up right away. Your best bet: immediately seek shelter and warm up frozen skin.
Just five minutes of exposure is dangerous. “When the wind chill is between 0 and minus 19° F, exposed skin can freeze within five minutes,” warns Dr. Danoff.
Cover up your extremities. They’re farthest away from your heart, meaning they get less blood flow and are harder to keep warm. Extra sensitive areas to frostbite and frostnip include your nose, fingers, toes, ears, cheeks, and chin.
Create your own humidifier.Breathing in extreme cold air isn’t good for anyone, but it’s especially problematic for those with asthma or other breathing difficulties. “Pull your scarf up over your nose and mouth or opt for a ski mask that covers those areas when you’re outside,” Dr. Danoff says. “It acts as a filter for the cold air, able to warm up and humidify it before it hits your lungs.”
Resist the urge to reach for hot water. What happens when you wash a cold glass in scalding hot water? It breaks. A similar idea applies to your skin. “Once you remove any wet clothing, run lukewarm water over the affected area, or apply a warm damp rag wherever the symptoms start," he advises.
Opt for mittens instead of gloves. “The seams around each finger can cause you to lose heat,” Dr. Danoff explains. “With mittens you have skin next to skin to retain more heat.”
Know your medical risk. “Certain health conditions makes patients more susceptible to cold weather complications, making their body work harder to keep warm,” Dr. Danoff explains. Those with heart disease, emphysema, COPD, severe anemia, diabetes, bronchitis, or other circulation issues should take note. Ask your doctor if your blood pressure medication or antidepressants make you more sensitive to cold weather complications.
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