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Health Tips for Cold Weather Safety

Winter temperatures are dropping rapidly, so staying warm and dry can be a challenge.  Extremely cold weather is expected for the days ahead and the Indiana State Department of Health recommends Hoosiers take steps to plan for the cold.

Serious health problems can result from prolonged exposure to the cold.  The most common cold-related problems are hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia occurs when people are exposed to cold temperatures.  A person’s body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced and prolonged exposure to the cold will ultimately use up a body’s stored energy.  This results in 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.  This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may be unaware it is happening and won’t be able to take protective measures.

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.

If you detect symptoms of frostbite, such as numbness, waxy-feeling skin, or a white or gray colored area of skin, do not rub the area.  Instead, get into a warm room as soon as possible.  Gently warm the affected area with comfortably warm (not hot) water, or place the affected area next to a warm part of your body, for example your armpit.  Never use a heating pad or other source of heat to warm frostbitten body parts as these areas are numb and can be easily burned.  Seek care from a health care professional immediately. 

Exposure to the cold can cause life-threatening health conditions. Avoid serious conditions such as frostbite and hypothermia by keeping warm.  Wear the following items when outdoors:

  • A hat or hood as most heat is lost through the head;
  • A scarf or knit mask to cover face and mouth;
  • Sleeves that are snug at the wrist;
  • Mittens (they are warmer than gloves);
  • Water-resistant coat and boots; and
  • Several layers of loose-fitting clothing.

Ensure the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven, preferably wind resistant, to reduce body-heat loss caused by wind.  Wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton.  Most important, stay dry as wet clothing chills the body rapidly.  Excess perspiration will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of clothing whenever you feel too warm.  Do not ignore shivering as it is an important first sign that the body is losing heat.  Persistent shivering is a signal to return indoors.

Follow these tips for staying warm and safe while at home:

  • Use fireplace, wood stoves, or other combustion heaters only if they are properly vented to the outside;
  • Never use a charcoal or gas grill indoors—the fumes are deadly;
  • Never leave lit candles unattended;
  • Keep as much heat as possible inside your home;
  • Check the temperature in your home often during severely cold weather; and
  • Eat well-balanced meals to help you stay warmer.

Misuse of portable heating equipment can lead to fire or dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.  Take precautions to ensure you are heating your home safely and that you have a working carbon monoxide detector.

For more winter weather tips, visit the following Web sites:

Indiana Department of Homeland Security

Indiana Department of Transportation

Indiana State Police

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • For more information, visit “Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety
  • Spanish version: “Frío extremo: guía preventiva