The sub-zero temperatures this past weekend and continuing into early this week have been something one would expect if living much closer to the Arctic Circle. And with such Arctic temperatures comes the increase for potential cold-weather injuries, such as frostbite and hypothermia.
Dr. Scott Knutson, emergency room physician at Trinity Health, said frostbite is a localized cold weather injury that causes skin tissue damage and is classified like burns. It starts out painful and then becomes numb, he said, eventually becoming necrotic. The frostbitten part will fall off or have to be surgically treated and removed.
Cases of frostbite aren't seen here all the time though, Knutson said, mainly because people here are acclimatized to the cold. "People at risk are those new to the area or infants or the elderly with poor circulation," he said. "It's also seen in homeless people." Knutson noted that smoking and alcohol use can be factors in cold-weather injuries.
If it's suspected that skin may have become frostbitten, Knutson suggests to get out of the environment, get out of the wind and wet clothes, rewarm the skin tissue with lukewarm water and avoid refreezing the skin. Then, start on an anti-inflammatory medication or topical aid like aloe, he continued, and avoid rubbing the skin because it can cause further damage. Also, seek medical attention if you suspect you have suffered frostbite, Knutson added. That way, infection is minimized.
Hypothermia is another cold-weather injury, where the body's core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions. If exposed to cold and the internal mechanisms are unable to replenish the heat that is being lost, a drop in core temperature occurs. It is usually caused by exposure to low temperatures and is frequently complicated by alcohol use.
There's mild, moderate and severe hypothermia, Knutson said, and is mostly an immersion problem. It can also happen chronically with people who are working outside all day, he added.
"In this area, people are acclimatized," Knutson said. Hypothermia is seen more commonly in cold, wet, coastal cities in the winter, like in Seattle, he continued.
The common response to hypothermia is to shiver, Knutson said. When it's severe, it can lead to the body shutting down, he added. Knutson recommends that the person get out of the situation that brought on hypothermia, apply heat, and to sit in a warm bath for an hour. For severe hypothermia, the person should be evaluated for a medical emergency, he said.
"The best thing is to prevent hypothermia," Knutson said. Be aware of increased susceptibility, particularly in people who are not from the area, and infants and the elderly should be watched, he continued. Alcohol and smoking also puts a person at risk for hypothermia. Also, people should dress appropriately for the outdoor conditions and should have a winter survival kit in their car that includes a blanket and a charged phone.
Knutson stressed that if a person is not responding or has an altered mental status, it's a medical emergency.
Another cold-weather issue to be aware of is carbon monoxide poisoning. Make sure to have good ventilation in your house or garage, Knutson advised. Symptoms of mild poisoning include lightheadedness, confusion, headaches, vertigo and flu-like effects. The symptoms are not immediate, though, and take time to manifest. Knutson said carbon monoxide floats downward and relates to body size, so children and pets are at added risk.
Often the body will heal better than you think, Knutson said, but any cold-weather injury should be followed by a medical professional until there is no sign of infection.
"It doesn't take below zero temperatures to get frostbite or hypothermia," Knutson added. "It's not always an extreme cold situation." He also advised people to plan ahead when going outside in the cold, anticipate bad temperatures or stalled vehicles, let people know where you're going and when you plan on arriving at your destination and keep aware of exposure time.