Healthworks: Recognizing signs of hypothermia and frostbite

When temperatures take a dive into the teens and single digits, it can be really uncomfortable to go outside. But it can also be downright dangerous. 

According to Dr. Tom Waters, an emergency department physician at Cleveland Clinic, frigid temperatures can escalate into a dangerous situation quickly if we're not prepared for the cold. He says one of the biggest threats to our health in bitter temps is hypothermia.

"When someone starts to become hypothermic, signs of that are-initially they're a little excited; they’re shivering; they may be stomping their feet and moving around a lot. But that's usually followed by what we call a slowing phase, when they start to get lethargic, maybe slurred speech; they start to have a little trouble walking." 

Dr. Waters says the amount of time it takes to become hypothermic depends on the temperature, the duration of time spent outside, and whether the person is wet or dry.

He says that if a person is wet, they can get colder much quicker. So if someone has fallen in the water, or they're wet or sweaty because they're working, their body temperature can drop very quickly.

Dr. Waters says it's important to remember that a person doesn't necessarily have to be outdoors to suffer hypothermia, as it can happen if the temperature gets cold enough inside of a home, too. Infants and the elderly, as well as those with chronic illnesses, are most susceptible to suffering hypothermia.

The other big danger in frigid weather is frostbite. When it comes to frostbite, Dr. Waters says the keys to staying safe are being prepared and paying attention to the forecast.

"You want to cover up exposed areas that you can, fingers, ears. Some things you can't cover up as much, like a nose, although this day in age, there's a lot of face masks out there you can wear if you're out working in the cold." 

Dr. Waters says if you've had frostbite before you may be more susceptible to get it again. He says if a person begins to show signs of hypothermia or frostbite, they need to be taken to a warm area and seek medical attention right away.