Medical Effects of Extreme Cold. Why it Hurts and How to Be Safe?

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Extreme Cold

Temperatures in North America have considerably dropped from -10℃ to -27℃ in the past few months. This phenomenon is called a polar vortex. It is a large hollow, pocket of cold air, one of the coldest in the Northern Hemisphere, which hovers over the polar region during winters. But this year, the frigid air found its way into other adjacent regions like the United States of America, Canada, Alaska, and other Northern Plains. This phenomenon has impacted the temperatures and weather conditions to be extremely cold. Elderly patients are particularly at risk because they are not always aware of drops to their body temperatures. The extreme cold can cause a lot of health complications such as hypothermia, risk of falls and severe deadly frostbites.

Health Effects of Extreme Cold

During extreme cold weathers, our body temperature also lowers resulting in the cooling of our extremities. This causes many health effects and injuries like – nonfreezing injuries, freezing injuries, and hypothermia. Toes, nose, fingers, and ears are at high risk because these body parts don’t have muscles that produce heat and in general they have poorer circulation compared to our internal organs. Moreover, the body will preserve heat favoring the internal organs. As a result, the hands and feet get cold much quicker than the torso.

One of the most severe health effects of extreme cold is hypothermia, where it is even known to be fatal. Hypothermia occurs when excess heat is lost from the body and the inner core temperature constantly lowers down. Hypothermia can be especially dangerous as it can cause some mental clouding so the person does not think as clearly as they normally would. Make sure you dress up in warm layers, you want some foods high in carbohydrates if you plan to be in the cold for an extended period of time and watch for any signs for Frostbite and Hypothermia.

Signs of Frostbite include:

-Cold Skin and a prickling sensation on your skin.


-Grey Ashy skin color

-In some severe cases you may get blisters when you are in a warmer environment.

Signs of Hypothermia include:


-Slurred speech or mumbling

-Shallow breathing

-Low pulse

-Poor coordination

-Drowsy and Lethargic

-Mental Clouding

Nonfreezing and Freezing Injuries

Chilblains are mild injuries caused due to prolonged exposure to temperatures between 0-15℃ for several hours. In the area most affected, you will notice redness, swelling, and tingling pain.

Frostnip is the mildest form of freezing injuries that usually occurs on earlobes, cheeks, nose, fingers, and toes that are exposed to extremely cold temperatures for several hours. In such conditions, even the top layers of skin can freeze. The skin over the affected area turns white and feels hard and numb when touched.

Frostbite is a common freezing injury caused when a body part or skin surface comes in contact with an icy cold object, especially the ones made from metal. Frostbite occurs when the temperature of the tissues drops below 0℃. In such injuries, the blood vessels are permanently damaged ceasing blood flow to the affected area completely. The individual with frostbite experiences inflammation of the skin with burning and pricking sensations resulting in blisters. The frostbitten skin is highly prone to infections and gangrene.

First-Aid Measures

  • Treat the affected areas gently and monitor breathing or blood pressure (if the device is available or visit a nearby pharmacy).
  • Remove any wet clothing and gently remove jewelry ( advise not to wear jewelry in cold weather).
  • If the victim is severely injured and has lost blood but is still conscious, drinking warm or hot liquids can prevent blood clots.
  • DO NOT attempt to rewarm affected areas.
  • DO NOT rub or apply dry heat on the frostbitten areas.
  • DO NOT drink alcohol or smoke when you have frostbites.
  • Seek medical help immediately if numbness is experienced. Hypothermia is a medical emergency.
  • Look for a pharmacy nearby that can help you with the necessary first aid prescriptions for open wounds and minor ailments.
  • Perform Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation-CPR if the victim stops breathing. Continue CPR until medical help is received.

The Elderly and Senior that may be suffering from chronic pain are more prone to extreme cold temperatures. So it is very important that they take the appropriate measures to stay warm especially when we are having these episodes of deep freezes. An ounce of prevention here is definitely worth a pound of cure!

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