The Dangers of Extreme Cold
Exposure to cold temperatures, whether indoors or outside, can cause other serious or life-threatening health problems. Infants and the elderly are particularly at risk, but anyone can be affected. Care needs to be taken both inside and out to stay safe.
What constitutes extreme cold, and its effects can vary across different areas of the country.
The perception of what constitutes “extreme cold” can vary depending on the region and what residents are accustomed to.
Temps at or below 0°F
Temps at or near the freezing mark of 32°F.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. It occurs when your body falls below 95°F (35°C).
Frostbite is a condition in which the tissue below the skin freezes. It can result from exposure to cold weather conditions that cause the underlying tissues to freeze. Frostbite can also occur from direct contact with extremely cold surfaces life ice, freezing metals, or cold liquids.
Other Home Preps
- Install smoke & carbon monoxide detectors.
- Insulate water pipelines running through outside walls.
- Inspect your fireplace yearly.
- Weatherproof with weather stripping, insulation, insulated doors, storm windows, or thermal-pane windows.
- Store lots of blankets and winter clothing.
Prepare Your Car
- meet required maintenance
- radiator serviced
- antifreeze levels checked
- tire pressure checked
- replace windshield wiper fluid with wintertime mixture
- either replace tires or put on winter tires
- keep the tank nearly full to avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines
Winter Survival Kit
These are items you will want to add to your auto kit during winter months. It includes items that will help you through extremely cold weather should you get caught out in the elements. These items include blankets, hat & gloves, body & hand warmers, small snow shovel, ice scrapper, and hiking boots.
Indoor Safety Precautions
#1 Using alternative fuel
Extreme cold weather often goes hand in hand with power outages which then leads people to use alternative equipment and devices to heat, produce light, and cook inside. With the use of space heaters and fireplaces, the risk of household fires increases, and so does the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you are using alternative heating equipment that can be used without electricity, always operate according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Only use fuel-powered generators outdoors and never heat your home with a gas stovetop or oven.
#2 Taking care of your water pipes
Extreme cold can cause water pipes in your home to freeze and sometimes rupture. When freezing temperatures are expected:
- Leave all water taps slightly open so they drip continuously.
- Keep the indoor temperature warm.
- Improve the circulation of heated air near pipes. For example, open kitchen cabinet doors beneath the kitchen sink.
- If your pipes do freeze, thaw them slowly by directing the warm air from an electric hair dryer onto the pipes.
- If you cannot thaw your pipes or the pipes rupture then use bottled water.
- If no other water is available—snow can be melted for water. Bring water to a rolling boil for at least 60 seconds.
#3 Monitor body temperature
Infants can’t make body heat by shivering. Provide warm clothing for infants and try to maintain a warm indoor temperature. If the temperature cannot be maintained, make temporary arrangements to stay elsewhere. In an emergency, you can keep an infant warm using your own body heat. If you must sleep, take precautions to prevent rolling on the baby. Pillows and other soft bedding can also present a risk of smothering; remove them from the area near the baby.
Older adults often make less body heat because of a slower metabolism and less physical activity. If you are over 65 years of age, check the temperature in your home often during severely cold weather. Also, check on elderly friends and neighbors frequently to ensure their homes are adequately heated.
#4 Remember your pets
If you have pets, bring them indoors. If it's too cold for you, it's most likely too cold for them. If you cannot bring them inside, your pets will need extra care and attention during cold weather. Always check on them regularly to ensure they are safe and comfortable.
Provide warm shelter: Set up a draft-free shelter that is big enough for them to stand and turn around in but small enough to retain as much body heat as possible. Use some form of material, like straw, to insulate them from the cold. Always face the entrance away from incoming wind or snow.
Coat length: Keep your pet’s coat as long as possible during the winter months. For short-haired pets, consider placing a coat or sweater that covers from the neck to the tail and around the stomach.
Food and water: Carefully place the food away from any possible snow drifts, ice, or other obstacles. Watch that their drinking water does not freeze.
Elderly or sickly pets: Regardless of hair length, place them in a warm coat to keep them as warm as possible.
Outdoor Safety Precautions
#1 Dress in layers
If you don’t start with wearing these three layers, at least take all layers with you so you can adjust as either the weather or your activity level changes.
Base layer – underwear layer: This wicking layer removes sweat from the body to the fabric’s outer surface and dries rapidly, so the sweat does not saturate the fabric. Fabric options include polyester, nylon, wool, and silk. The fit should be comfortably snug.
Middle layer – insulating layer: This layer’s job is to retain body heat to help you from getting cold. Options include synthetic, down, wool, and flannel materials.
Outer layer – shell layer: This layer’s job is to protect you from wind and rain. Anything breathable and waterproof will do.
#2 If you get stranded
If you find yourself stranded in your car during cold winter weather, here are some steps you can take to stay safe.
Stay in your car: Unless you can see help close to where you are, stay inside your car. It can provide shelter and will be easier for rescuers to find.
Display a sign of trouble: Tie a bright-colored cloth to the car’s antenna to signal the need for help and raise the hood of your car if it's not snowing.
Stay warm: You can run your engine for 10 to 15 minutes per hour, or even longer if you have a strong battery and enough gas.
Check your tailpipe: Before you run your engine, make sure the snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe which could cause a buildup of carbon monoxide inside the car.
Dress warm before you leave: Dress for the conditions you will be driving in. You can always adjust the layers as necessary. If you need more warmth, wrap your entire body and head in blankets.
Cold Weather Emergencies
Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. It occures when body temperature falls below 95°F.
Signs & symptoms
shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech or drowsiness
Actions to take
- Call 911.
- Get the person indoors and remove any wet clothing.
- Cover them with warm coats or blankets.
- Monitor their breathing. If there are no signs of life, begin CPR.
- If conscious, provide warm, non-alcoholic beverages if the person can drink.
- Do not attempt to warm up the victim too quickly.
- Apply a warm, dry compress to the center of the body around the neck, chest, and groin areas.
- Do not attempt to warm arms and legs first as this can stress the heart and lungs.
- Do not rub or massage the person’s skin as it can cause further damage.
- If you cannot get the person indoors, protect their neck and head from the wind and insulate them from the cold ground.
Frostbite is a condition in which the tissue below the skin freezes. It is a progressive condition and has three stages. Frostnip: mild form, presents with pale skin or red skin; Superficial: skin is soft, and ice crystals may appear; and Severe/deep: affects all layers of the skin and tissues below.
Signs & symptoms
cold, numb, pale, hard, waxy skin; pins and needles; burning/stinging sensation; skin discoloration: red, white, blue, or grayishyellow; muscle and joint stiffness; blistering after rewarming
Actions to take
- Check for hypothermia (see above).
- Protect the skin: don’t try to thaw any frozen skin that has a chance of freezing again. If the skin has already thawed, wrap the area up so that it will not refreeze.
- If possible, get the person out of the cold and into a warm space. Remove wet clothing and wrap them up in a warm blanket.
- Treat frostbitten areas gently and without rubbing. Soak affected extremities like toes, and fingers in warm water (105 to 110 degrees F). Apply a warm, wet washcloth to the face and ears.
- Avoid using direct heat from a stove or heating pad as this can burn the skin.
- Offer warm liquids like tea, coffee, hot chocolate, or soup.
- Seek medical help if the frostbite is beyond stage one.
Check for damage: Inspect your home and property for any damage that may have been caused by the cold weather including pipes, the home’s exterior, and landscaping.
Health check: Check on family, friends, and neighbors to monitor for signs of cold-related health issues.
Restock supplies: Be sure to restock all items you and your family used during this time like food, water, and medical supplies.
Review your emergency plan: Review how well your emergency plan worked and didn’t work. Did you have everything you needed? What were the items you wished you had? Use this cold spell to improve your plan for next winter.