Of all the health risks the extreme cold can pose, the biggest dangers are hypothermia and frostbite, according to The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay.
Hypothermia is when your core body temperature drops, a very serious and life-threatening situation, Senay explains. Frostbite is when cell damage occurs from the cold as a result of a lack of circulation, usually to extremities like your fingers, toes and nose, Senay explained to The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen.
It doesn't take extremely cold temperatures to bring about either condition, Senay says: Even moderate cold, when combined with wind and moisture, can cause them, so it's "something to think about pretty much year-round when the weather is just mildly chilly."
Depending on how much body heat you lose, hypothermia can kill, particularly in vulnderable populations such as children and the elderly, by slowing the function of vital organs such as the heart, lungs and brain. It can happen when people stay out too long in freezing conditions, or get lost or stranded in them. But it can also occur indoors, if you have a home that's hard to heat.
The symptoms of hypothermia are violent shivering, disorientation, memory loss, slow or shallow breathing, slurred speech, drowsiness, exhaustion, or a weak pulse. "As this progresses, people may lose consciousness. It's a very, very serious problem," Senay told Chen.
Hypothermia, Senay stresses, is a medical emergency, so you need to call 9-1-1 and get the person who's suffering to the emergency room for treatment right away. ERs are best-equippped to treat it, she says.
As for frostbite, it progresses from the pins and needles sensation in the extremities to numbness, hardened and pale skin, blisters and, in the worst cases, blackened skin, which is very severe "and you should get treatment before it gets to that point," Senay observes.
Severe frostbite can lead to gangrene and amputation, so if you get the pins and the needles sensation, get inside and get warm.
If you feel frostbite is setting in, Senay advises, avoid further harm to the frostbitten area. Don't apply too much heat or friction right away. Avoid burning with other forms of direct heat, such as the fire or stove. Avoid rubbing or massaging.
"Slowly re-warm the affected area. Immerse and circulate in warm water, not hot water, for about 30 minutes. "What you don't want to do is risk refreezing after you've rewarmed," Senay warns. "So, unless you can guarantee that the person isn't going to go back out into the cold, where there's potential for them to get frostbite again, then you wanna try to wait to rewarm until you know they're out of danger."
To avoid both conditions, Senay points out, you need to wear lots of layers of clothing. Cover your head, ears, nose and hands. Wear warm footwear. If you have a cold house, keep one room at seventy degrees. Sleep with extra blankets, a cap and socks. And avoid alcohol. It's a common misconception that alcohol helps keep you warm. On the contrary, it constricts blood vessels and it can make you more susceptible to the cold.