Doctors warn about frostbite, hypothermia during cold temperatures this week

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ROANOKE (WSLS 10) -Bitterly cold temperatures are settling into the region, and with lows dipping into the teens, doctors are warning the community to bundle up - not just for comfort, but also for safety.

Dr. Priscilla Tu with Carilion Clinic says these frigid temperatures are low enough to cause frost bite or hypothermia in a short amount of time. Exposed skin can freeze in as little as 10 minutes depending on the circumstances.

"If it's wet and cold and those types of things, it doesn't take very long at all," Tu said.

Extreme cold can pose significant risk to anyone, but especially children, the elderly, and people with health conditions like diabetes.

Dr. Tu says when it comes to staying warm and safe, it's all about layers - especially on your hands, toes, and face.

"Because anything that is furthest from your heart is going to be what's most at risk for frostbite," Tu said.

It's not only about the amount of layers you are wearing, but the type of material and how well it protects your body from the elements.

"If you are in mittens and they are cotton mittens and you are throwing snowballs and they get wet. That's not adequate coverage anymore," Tu said.

Synthetics and wool that keep moisture away from your body are the best. Tu says shivering is the first sign you've been out too long.

"When you start getting pain at all, even itching at all…in your fingers or extremities, pain is definitely some things to look at," Tu said.

She says more severe symptoms should be examined by a doctor immediately.

Here is some important information on cold weather health emergencies recommended by Roanoke Fire and EMS:

  • Hypothermia

When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body's stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. Warnings signs of hypothermia are:


· shivering, exhaustion

· confusion, fumbling hands

· memory loss, slurred speech

· drowsiness


· bright red, cold skin

· very low energy

What to Do

If you notice any of these signs, take the person's temperature. If it is below 95°, the situation is an emergency—get medical attention immediately.

  • Frostbite

Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures. Signs of frostbite are:

· a white or grayish-yellow skin area

· skin that feels unusually firm or waxy

· numbness

A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.

What to Do

If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure, first determine whether the victim also shows signs of hypothermia, as described previously. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance.

If (1) there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and (2) immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:

· Get into a warm room as soon as possible.

· Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes—this increases the damage.

· Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).

· Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.

· Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.

· Don't use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned

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