Baby, it’s cold outside. The weather outside is frightful. Jack Frost is nipping at your nose.
They are more than just song lyrics. The thermometer is bottoming out in Centre County this week. Thursday temperatures started in the single digits and were not predicted to go above the teens, according to AccuWeather, while the blustery winds drove the effect of those temperatures even lower, making 10 degrees feel more like zero ... or lower.
As the area gets its first taste of a winter the Weather Channel is predicting will be “colder than average,” the state and health professionals are urging people to be prepared and careful.
“Many parts of the commonwealth will have temperatures around zero, with the wind making it feel even colder,” said Secretary of Health Dr. Karen Murphy. “Dangerously cold temperatures like these can lead to life-threatening health problems like hypothermia and frostbite. Lower-than-normal temperatures and higher wind speeds, such as those we’re expecting, can cause heat to leave your body more quickly than normal and result in serious health issues.”
Scott DeHart is the medical director at Mount Nittany Physician Group. He says hypothermia is the most dangerous cold-weather threat.
“Hypothermia is the fall in body temperature that affects all body systems, especially the brain where it lowers the ability to react and think clearly to avoid danger. Wet skin increases the conductive loss of heat by about 30 times, but the major loss of heat with dry skin comes from radiation loss,” he said.
Hypothermia starts with shivering, loss of coordination and confusion, but can move to a slowed pulse and breathing and potentially coma. The cold can also disrupt heart rhythms as body temperatures fall to about 86 degrees.
To treat possible hypothermia, DeHart suggests moving a victim to a warmer area and covering with blankets, removing wet clothing and giving them warm, non-alcoholic fluids and avoiding excessive movement until emergency help arrives.
Other problems can have serious effects that are longterm but less life-threatening.
“Frostbite is another cold stress injury that presents a major threat in cold work environments. Fingers, toes, nose and ears are most susceptible to frostbite since they readily shunt blood to the core in cold environments,” DeHart said.
The danger comes when skin temperature falls below 50 degrees, taking away the ability to feel any sensation and leaving the victim unaware as temperatures fall even faster, with skin actually freezing at 32 degrees.
DeHart suggests that, if you are at a safe place like home where corrective steps can be taken, skin be re-warmed rapidly, with water around 104-108 degrees, but if the victim is still out in the weather, like on a job site or in the woods, attempts to re-warm the affected areas should wait until there is no threat of re-freezing.
“In the field, you can use warmer body parts to start re-warming, such as placing the fingers under the armpits. All cases of frostbite should ultimately be treated by medical personnel, because frostbite can result in permanent problems even when amputation is not required,” he said. “The key is prevention: use of layered clothing, mittens instead of gloves, covering of face and ears, avoidance of wet clothing and reducing time in the cold environment.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Health suggests staying indoors as much as possible in cold weather, but if that isn’t possible, follow this advice:
▪ Keep trips outside brief.
▪ Dress in layers.
▪ Pay attention to shivering — your body’s attempt to tell you to go inside.
▪ Be aware of threats of hypothermia and frostbite, and seek medical help if suspected.
▪ Cold poses the greatest risk to infants and older Pennsylvanians. Check on them frequently. Make sure infants wear warm clothes and don’t sleep in a cold room, and check the temperature of homes for those older than 65.
▪ For more cold-weather advice, check the Department of Health’s website at www.health.pa.gov.