With winter weather on the way, Oklahomans are stockpiling food and water in case snow and ice shut down roads and businesses. But it’s just as important to take precautions against exposure to the elements, said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D.
“As temperatures plummet and wind speed increases, we become extremely susceptible to the cold,” he said. “Knowing the dangers and symptoms of chill-related maladies could be the difference between making a snowman and becoming one.”
One danger is frostbite, in which below-freezing temperatures cause tissue damage. While the coming week’s forecast predicts a low of 3 degrees Fahrenheit, wind chill could drop that below zero.
“That’s not to say that everybody has to stay inside if there’s a snow day,” Prescott said. “But, as Benjamin Franklin said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Don’t try to be macho and head out in a T-shirt or without a coat, because even a few minutes of exposure can start your body temperature dropping. Dress in layers with loose-fitting clothing, which allows for easy blood flow to the arms and legs.
“Fingers, toes, ears and nose are usually the first affected by extreme cold because they are farthest away from the heart,” Prescott said. “So make sure to wear gloves, warm socks and keep your head covered as much as possible.”
There are two types of frostbite. Superficial frostbite affects the top-most layers of skin with symptoms including burning, numbness and itching in the affected areas. Those areas might look white and frozen.
Deep frostbite is more serious, with a gradual loss of feeling in affected areas and swelling blisters over white or jaundiced looking skin. If touched, deeply frostbitten areas are hard and may begin to look blackened and dead. Severe frostbite can often lead to amputation.
More likely in this weather are chilblains—localized areas of inflamed tissue that come from repeated exposure to cold, wet conditions in temperatures above freezing.
“Don’t be afraid to get out and enjoy the snow, but don’t stay out all day. Go inside, stay hydrated and well-fed, and give yourself time to warm up in between excursions,” he said. “And don’t think alcohol will warm you up. It actually lowers body temperature.”