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ER Doctor Lays Out Cold Weather Health Risks


We don’t need to tell you it’s cold today - dangerously cold to be outside for just about any length of time.

But when we talk about risks like exposure and frostbite, what should we really be looking for? 

Dr. Chris Decker is Emergency Department Medical Director at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. He says the cold poses unique threats to those with diabetes, as the nerves in the feet and legs often don't work properly. As a result, a diabetic might not feel the numbness and other early signs of frostbite and exposure. People taking medication for hypertension or heart problems should also avoid the cold.

But Decker says we should all be on the look-out during this cold snap, and he helps break the ice on these cold weather terms:

  • Frostbite - Essentially a form of skin death, like a burn, frostbite occurs when the skin freezes. The most common form of frostbite is frost nip - the first stage. Decker says the skin gets cold and becomes number; once removed from the cold, the skin will tingle and even be painful as it rewarms. "In the worst circumstances, the skin freezes and dies and sloughs off and you're left with a scar," Decker says. Frostbite usually occurs on the tips of fingers, the nose, the ears and the toes, if exposed.
  • Exposure - Decker says frostbite tends to happen when people don't limit the exposure of their skin to cold air and ignore the body's signals. Upon feeling numbness, you should get to a warm environment, or risk the freezing of the skin. After 30 to 40 minutes of such exposure, the skin may start to blister, much like a second-degree burn, Decker says. Protect your skin and your body by staying out of the cold or limiting exposure, keeping dry, wearing warm clothing, keeping the wind off your back, and staying well-hydrated.
  • Hypothermia - The core of the body, the area between the shoulders and the hip, needs to stay at a certain temperature in order to stay functioning. When it dips below this temperature, the body become hypothermic and in severe cases, it begins to shut down. Decker says keep your core warm by dressing in layers, and also stay dry, hydrated and protected from the wind in order to keep the body at its preferred 98.6-degree temperature.

Dr. Chris Decker is Emergency Department Medical Director at Froedtert Hospital & the Medical College of Wisconsin.