How Dangerous Is Being Out In The Cold?

Walking Outside For Brief Periods Can Be Dangerous To Skin

How dangerous is it to be out in these low temperatures?

7NEWS asked Dr. Dianne McCallister, chief medical officer of Porter Adventist Hospital if people should be concerned about the cold if they are just going out for 15 minutes walking to grab some lunch or waiting for the bus or train.

She said, "Yes. It has to do with air temperature and wind. At temperatures like this, if you are out your skin could freeze in 15 minutes or just walking 8 or 10 blocks."

Most people out for a short time in the cold air will suffer from frostnip and not frostbite. Frostnip is a near freezing of the skin but not as severe as the more dangerous deeper tissue freezing that is frostbite. Frostnip and frostbite affect any exposed areas, especially on the face as well as the fingers and toes.

The first symptoms you will feel are a "pins and needles" sensation followed by numbness. There may be an early throbbing or aching, but as more freezing of the skin takes place, the affected part becomes insensate or feels like a "block of wood".

Frostbitten skin is hard, pale, cold, and has no feeling. When skin has thawed out, it becomes red and painful (early frostbite). With more severe frostbite, the skin may appear white and numb (tissue has started to freeze). Severe frostbite requires immediate medical attention.

McCallister said kids, especially babies, are much more sensitive to the cold. "Babies are extremely sensitive to the cold; they lose heat faster than adults and have less fat than adults. They also don't have the ability to shiver like adults do, one way the body generates heat."

If you think you have frostnip or frostbite, there are more don'ts than do's.

  • Do NOT rub or massage the affected area. That can cause more damage to the frostbitten area.
  • Do NOT thaw out a frostbitten area if it cannot be kept thawed. Refreezing may make tissue damage even worse.
  • Do NOT use direct dry heat (such as a radiator, campfire, heating pad, or hair dryer) to thaw the frostbitten areas. Direct heat can burn the tissues that are already damaged.
  • Do NOT disturb blisters on frostbitten skin.
  • Do NOT smoke or drink alcoholic beverages during recovery as both can interfere with blood circulation.

    McCallister says that to prevent frostnip or frostbite, make sure you are aware of factors such as wet clothes, high winds and poor circulation. Poor circulation can be caused by tight clothing or boots, cramped positions, fatigue, certain medications, smoking, alcohol use, or diseases that affect the blood vessels, such as diabetes.

    "Even a tight wedding ring can reduce blood circulation to that finger and it will be more susceptible to damage than your other fingers," said McCallister.

    Wear suitable clothing in cold temperatures and protect exposed areas. In cold weather, wear mittens (not gloves); wind-proof, water-resistant, many-layered clothing; two pairs of socks (cotton next to skin, then wool); and a hat or scarf that covers the ears (to avoid substantial heat loss through the scalp).