SPRINGFIELD — It’s a myth that cold air can make you sick with the common cold or flu. But it is true that serious health problems can result from prolonged exposure to freezing-cold temperatures — health hazards like frostbite, hypothermia, and increased risk of heart attacks. For many, the cold is not their friend.
“Infants and the elderly are particularly at risk, and those who work outdoors, but anyone can be affected,” said Dr. Joseph Schmidt, vice chair, Emergency Medicine, Baystate Medical Center.
Heart attacks are more prevalent during the winter months, when cold weather can place a strain on the heart.
“What happens is that your arteries tend to tighten when you are out in the cold, your blood pressure goes up, and this can overload your heart,” said Dr. Quinn Pack, a preventive cardiologist in the Baystate Heart & Vascular Program. “This could lead to a heart attack. If you have previously suffered a heart attack or have heart disease, you should avoid shoveling snow and other types of outdoor exertion, particularly if you are out of shape and haven’t been exercising regularly. Let someone else do it, like a nephew or neighbor. And be sure to bundle up when going out into the cold.”
Schmidt noted the most common cold-related problems resulting from prolonged exposure to the cold are hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia is signaled in adults by confusion, sleepiness, reduced breathing and heart rate, and extreme shivering, while infants may have bright red, cold skin and very low energy.
“What is concerning in the case of hypothermia is that your body has used up its stored energy resulting in low body temperature, which affects the brain and a person’s ability to think clearly, so someone may not realize what is happening to them or be able to do anything about it,” Schmidt said, noting that a body temperature below 95 degrees requires emergency medical attention.
While waiting for help to arrive, or for those whose temperature has not fallen to dangerous levels, begin warming immediately by getting the person indoors and removing any wet clothing they may be wearing. Warm the center of the body first — chest, neck, head, and groin area — using an electric blanket, if possible. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets. Warm beverages can also help increase body temperature. Once the body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
Schmidt offers the following tips to help prevent hypothermia this winter:
• Dress in layers. It is better to wear three thin layers of clothing than one bulky outfit.
• Avoid the wind and getting wet while outdoors, as both promote loss of body heat.
• Avoid alcohol, some medications, and smoking, as they diminish blood flow in the cold.
• Plan outdoor activities so that you can take breaks inside to warm up.
Symptoms of frostbite include numbness and a white cast to the skin in the affected area. “The most susceptible body parts are fingers, toes, ear lobes, and the nose,” Schmidt said. He suggests warming the frozen part to room temperature by immersing it in warm (not hot) water to avoid burns to the skin. Frozen tissue is fragile and can be damaged easily. Also, avoid warming with high heat from radiators, fireplaces, or stoves, and avoid rubbing or breaking blisters. If in doubt about possible frostbite, consult your physician or seek emergency treatment.