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Being Careful In The Cold

Posted on November 21, 2014 at 7:00 PM

By:Robert Gundic, Co-Owner Caring Companions LLC

The temperature dropped to about 15 degrees today. Yup, it's winter in Cleveland, Ohio! Summer seems to be a thing of the past and so is the threat of heat exhaustion. However, with summer gone and winter upon us, other concerns are brought to mind.

Hypothermia and frost bite are two weather related medical issues that are of particular concern because of the difficulty older adults have maintaining their body temperature.

Most body heat is a by-product of metabolism, or the basic chemical processes that occur within our bodies. As we age, our metabolism slows down, thus we do not generate as much body heat. Additionally, the body's ability to detect changes in the internal and external environment is often decreased with age.

Hypothermia is a condition that is exacerbated by old age. It occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, thus your core body temperature will begin to drop. As it does, your body will respond with the following symptoms: shivering, confusion and disorientation. As your condition worsens you may experience slurred speech, confusion and poor decision making, low-energy, a weak pulse and slowed breathing.

Although we typically think of being outside when we think of hypothermia, that's not always the case. An older adult may develop mild hypothermia after prolonged exposure to indoor temperatures that would be otherwise OK for a younger person.

Hypothermia and frostbite  often go hand in hand. With frigid temperatures in the 15-20 degree range and wind gusts up to 25mph, frostbite can occur quickly.Frostbite occurs when the skin and body tissues are exposed to cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time. Frostbite is most likely to occur in body parts that are farthest from the heart.

At or below freezing temperatures, blood vessels close to the skin will start to contrict in order to divert blood away from the extremities and to the organs. This constriction helps to preserve core body temps. As mentioned above, this is of increasing concern in older adults due to the body's natural aging process, which reduces metabolism. Unfortunately, this safety mechanism to protect core temp and the body's organs is actually what puts the skin at risk for necrosis, premature death of skin cells. The lack of blood flow causes the skin cells to freeze and ultimately die.

Frostbite occurs in several stages: Frostnip, the first stage, is a mild form of frostbite. Your skin turns red and feels very cold. Continued exposure to the cold will lead to a feeling of pins and needles in the affected area. This stage does not cause permanent damage. The second stage is referred to as superficial frostbite. The reddened skin may become white or very pale. Some ice crystals may begin to form in the tissue, but the skin may remain soft, as well. As the skin warms, it may turn to blue or purple. You may also notice a stinging and burning sensation followed by blistering withing 24 to 36 hours of rewarming the skin. Lastly, severe frostbite is characterized by numbness, losing all sensation of cold, pain or discomfort and an inability to move joints or muscles.

You should consult a doctor if signs or symptoms of superficial frostbite occur-such as prolonged numbness, blistering or pale skin.

The easiest thing you can do is to avoid the cold on days when it is particularly cold and/or wind. However, that may not always be possible. When it is not, you should limit skin exposure and be sure to wear multiple layers.  If inside, be sure to keep the thermostat at or above 72 degrees, at a minimum.


This article is for informative purposes only. It is not meant to offer medical advice. If you believe you may have signs and symptoms of hypothermia or frostbite please contact an emergency physician ASAP.

Categories: Health and Safety

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