Inclement winter weather is as much a staple of Chicago as its hot dogs and pizza. Plummeting temperatures and chilling winds increase the risk for certain conditions, including frostbite, hypothermia and even heart attacks. The cold can also cause painful joints to worsen. Besides bundling up, Northwestern Medicine Emergency Medicine Physician George Chiampas, DO, CAQSM, FACEP, discusses ways to protect yourself and how to treat common issues.
When the skin is exposed to harsh winter conditions for a prolonged period of time, the skin freezes, which can damage underlying tissues. In most cases, the individual is not aware of frostbite because the skin becomes numb. Some people may have a higher risk for frostbite, such as those with peripheral arterial disease (PAD) or other conditions that cause reduced blood circulation, or those with conditions like diabetes that can cause reduced or loss of sensation.
Symptoms of frostbite can include but are not limited to:
- Tingling skin or numbness
- Discolored red, yellow or grey skin
- Black, dead skin and tissues
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops to an abnormally low level. Those at heightened risk include those who are outdoors for extended periods of time, infants and toddlers in cold bedrooms, and elderly individuals with inadequate clothing or heat.
Check in on loved ones or elderly to ensure their heat is set at an appropriate temperature and they are properly dressed for the temperature. Make sure the heat is set to 68 to 70 degrees. Above all, dress warmly, including socks or slippers.
Symptoms can include:
- Confusion or altered mental state
- Pale skin
- Cold hands and feet
- Exhaustion or extreme weakness
- Slurred speech
Dr. Chiampas emphasizes the importance of ensuring carbon monoxide and smoke detectors are in place and functional. Also, if using a space heater, ensure it is in an open space and not a fire hazard.
Aches and joint pains can be triggered by dropping temps. Arthritis has been shown to worsen with decreased temperatures. Wear appropriate clothing to avoid worsening symptoms. Try self-care measures like rest and heating pads. If pain persists, consult your physician.
How to Protect Yourself
There is something to be said about the age-old advice, “Bundle up!” When you are going out into the cold, wear proper clothing. It’s especially important to cover your hands, neck and head.
If you or someone with you has been outside for a prolonged period of time or exhibit any symptoms of frostbite or hypothermia, seek shelter right away. Once inside, remove any wet clothing, and warm the hands by tucking them under the arms or placing them in warm water. Avoid scolding hot water, heat pads or rubbing against the skin, as this could burn the skin or make the condition worse.
It is important to seek immediate medical attention if you note worsening symptoms, including:
- Skin turning black
- Impaired movement of joints or muscles
- Slow, labored breathing
- Loss of consciousness
If you are unsure, visit an immediate care or convenient care near you to consult a provider.