How to Stay Safe in Extreme Cold

Playing How to Protect Yourself in Freezing Temperatures

Temperatures across the country have plummeted to historic lows this week, leaving millions struggling to deal with what authorities have called a polar vortex. 

Postal services were halted, schools were closed and businesses were shuttered as extreme arctic cold spread and caused the coldest weather in at least two decades for parts of the Midwest. Frigid weather even reached into the Deep South, with freezing temperatures, ice and snow storms reported in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.   

The weather has made for dangerous traveling conditions, causing a 13-vehicle pileup in Michigan and the cancellation of more than 2,700 flights.  In Illinois, a man was killed Monday after being struck by a plow truck, police said, and the plow driver was placed on paid administrative leave pending the results of an investigation. 

Residents in areas where temperatures have dipped to dangerous levels are advised to remain indoors. But those who must go outside should follow the tips below for dealing with and remaining safe in the extreme cold

Signs of Frostbite 

Frostbite is a condition where skin and the tissue just below the skin freezes. It typically occurs on a person’s fingers, toes, nose and ears, as well as any other skin that may be exposed to the elements. 

Seek immediate medical attention if skin turns blue or gray, is very swollen, is blistered or feels hard and numb. 

How to Treat Frostbite

If you think you have frostbite, seek medical attention. Until you can see a doctor, steps to take include getting indoors as quickly as possible. Once inside, take care to slowly rewarm only once you know you can keep your skin warm.

Warming and then re-exposing a frostbitten area to the cold can cause worse damage.  

Gently warm the area in warm water or with wet heat until the skin appears red and warm. If no water is nearby, breathe on the area through cupped hands and hold it next to your body. Do not use hot water or direct heat from heating pads, radiators, or fires. This can cause burns. 

Do not rub or massage the skin or break blisters, as this can also cause further damage. 

Put your hands in your armpits, drink warm liquids and get extra layers of clothes and blankets to provide additional warmth. Remove any rings, watches or other tight jewelry from skin. 

How Much Time You Have

If the temperature is as low as 10 degrees, you have at least 30 minutes before frostbite is expected to set in.

If the temperature is below zero, it can take as little as five minutes for your skin to become frostbitten. 

"Values as cold as minus 30 to minus 50 degrees in a couple locations and even colder as you get farther north into some parts of Minnesota, where some of those wind chills could get down to minus 60," Richard Vargas, director of community social services for the Salvation Army in Chicago, told NPR. "If someone's out here and they're exposed or don't have the adequate amount of clothing on, it can be very treacherous, actually."

In parts of Wisconsin, the wind chill made it feel as if it were minus 54 degrees, but authorities said the cold was even more severe than initially considered. 

“If you're wondering about wind chills this morning vs years past ... the wind chill scale was changed in 2001,” the National Weather Service in Milwaukee tweeted. “The lowest wind chill readings this morning would be comparable to -80 on the scale used prior to 2001!”

At least one man in the state apparently succumbed to the dangerous temperatures. 

Charlie Lampley, 55, was found frozen in his open, detached garage of a home near North 64th Street and West Hope Avenue in Milwaukee Tuesday, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office said. 

Lampley, who collapsed and died shoveling snow, was fully clothed and dressed for the weather, authorities said. His body was near a snow shovel and it appeared he had been outside overnight, the medical examiner said.

The manner of death was primarily ruled as natural, officials said, noting nothing in the case appeared suspicious. 

Signs of Hypothermia 

Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. A normal body temperature is around 98.6 degrees, while hypothermia can occur when a person’s body temperature falls below 95 degrees. 

Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech or difficulty speaking, confusion or memory loss, sleepiness, stiff muscles, slow and shallow breathing, a weak pulse and clumsiness or lack of coordination. Bright red and cold skin can also occur in infants. 

“Someone with hypothermia usually isn't aware of his or her condition because the symptoms often begin gradually,” the Mayo Clinic says on its website. “Also, the confused thinking associated with hypothermia prevents self-awareness. The confused thinking can also lead to risk-taking behavior.”

Alfred Gombo, 22, died Sunday after suffering from both hypothermia and frostbite, as he was unable to get into the house he shared with his sister in Rochester, Minn., KIMT-TV reported

Gombo is believed to have tried but failed to get the attention of someone inside the home after he was dropped off about 2:30 a.m. Neighbors reportedly heard loud voices outside around that time and footprints were discovered around the home. Smeared blood was also found on doors in the area, and authorities discovered clothing that Gombo may have taken off, KIMT-TV wrote. 

People in the final stages of hypothermia lose rationality and, because of nerve damage, often feel incredibly hot and remove clothing as a result. 

How to Prevent Hypothermia

People outside in extreme temperatures should wear a hat or other protective covering to prevent body heat from escaping from their head, face and neck. Covering your hands with mittens keeps the fingers together and helps to trap additional heat, as opposed to gloves, which separate the fingers.

Layer loose-fitting and lightweight clothing under outer clothing made of tightly woven, water-repellent material. Wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers hold body heat better than cotton does.

Avoid activities that would cause you to sweat a lot, as the combination of wet clothing and cold weather can cause a person to lose body heat more quickly, the Mayo Clinic wrote. 

Take care to remain as dry as possible and, if you do get wet, remove wet clothing as soon as possible. 

Avoid Alcohol 

The Mayo Clinic also advises individuals to avoid alcohol if you’re going to be outside, if you’re going to be near water during cold temperatures and before going to bed on cold nights. 

“Put on a coat, put on your hat, put on your mittens,” Alyssa Lommel told Inside Edition in November.

Lommel was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota in 2013 when she lost all her fingers and toes after she nearly froze to death following a party.

Speaking especially to college coeds who may opt to go without their jackets when heading to a party or bar, Lommel said: “I know you did your hair for the night … You may think it's uncool, you may be worried, 'What if I leave it somewhere?' What if it gets stolen?’ 

"What if you lose your life?"

RELATED STORIES

Driver Leaves Boy, 5, on School Bus for Nearly 7 Hours in Sub-Freezing Temperatures

Farmers Warming Up Freezing Lambs by Putting Them in Ovens

Bodycam Footage Shows Moment Officer Leaps Into Freezing Water to Rescue Man