Dangerous cold, wind can cause severe frostbite in just minutes

CINCINNATI -- In sub-zero temperatures with windy conditions, experts say healthy adults should spend no more than 15 minutes outside.

Exposed skin can get frostbitten within minutes of exposure to the elements.

Tri-State emergency rooms, like at UC Health, have seen an uptick in patients being hospitalized for extreme cold in early January.

WCPO interviewed Dr. Matt Stull, a UC Health emergency medicine physician, about the dangers of extreme cold. Dr. Stull explained the spectrum of cold illness which begins with frostbite and moves to hypothermia. 

What is frostbite?

When the capillaries, which are the small blood vessels in your fingers, toes and even the top of your nose get cold and start to clamp down and decrease the blood flow to that area. It will begin to get red, then purple and could eventually develop blisters, almost like a burn.

What is hypothermia?

Frostbite can become hypothermia as the body’s core temperature drops. Signs of hypothermia are confusion, tiredness and dehydration. 

What is the first sign you need to warm up?

Shivering is your body telling you that you need to get warm. If you continue exposure to the cold, you could start to get confused, tired and sleepy, which are all signs of hypothermia.

How long should people be outside?

Healthy adults should limit exposure to 10-15 minutes.  Children and elderly should avoid being outside during sub-zero temperatures. Their bodies have less capability to compensate for the cold and their thermoregulation is not as strong.

When do people need to seek medical help?

When people are not acting like themselves, when they're experiencing signs of hypothermia and cannot warm themselves up.

What are the long-term effects of frostbite and hypothermia?

At its core, it’s a type of burn that can lead to serious neurologic problems in the fingers, toes and extremities. If the burn is severe it could lead to amputations.

Is there any truth to the old wives’ tale of alcohol warming you up?

No, alcohol tricks you into believing you are warmer than you actually are, making cold and alcohol a dangerous combination. It's especially dangerous if you don’t realize you are shivering.  The sensation of alcohol in chemoreceptors shunts blood to the core instead of where it needs to be when you’re cold, which is your extremities.  

Mayo Clinic Frostbite Prevention:

  • Limit time you're outdoors in cold, wet or windy weather. Pay attention to weather forecasts and wind chill readings.
  • Dress in several layers of loose, warm clothing rather than a single layer. Air trapped between the layers of clothing acts as insulation against the cold. Wear windproof and waterproof outer garments to protect against wind, snow and rain. Choose undergarments that wick moisture away from your skin.
  • Wear a hat that fully covers your ears. Heavy woolen or windproof materials make the best headwear for cold protection.
  • Wear mittens rather than gloves, which provide better protection.
  • Watch for signals of frostbite. Early signs of frostbite include redness, prickling and numbness.
  • Plan to protect yourself. When traveling in cold weather, carry emergency supplies and warm clothing in case you become stranded.
  • Don't drink alcohol if you plan to be outdoors in cold weather. Alcoholic beverages cause your body to lose heat faster. Eating well-balanced meals and drinking warm, sweet drinks, such as hot chocolate, will help you stay warmer.

WCPO reporter Tom McKee contributed to this report.


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