According to the National Weather Service, whose climate records date back to 1871, the coldest temperature ever recorded in Cleveland, Ohio was -20 degrees Fahrenheit on January 19, 1994. Earlier this month low temperatures returned with wind chills reaching 40 to 60 below zero across a large area of the Midwest.
The temperature can be deceiving when you add in wind chill. While the air temperature may not seem too cold, the wind increases its effect. For example, if the actual air temperature is 20 degrees Fahrenheit, a wind speed of 30 mph makes the air feel like -18 degrees – and that's chilly, even for us tough Clevelanders!
Caution must be taken when venturing outdoors in extreme temperatures because frostbite and hypothermia are real threats to our bodies. While frostbite itself does not cause deaths, the same conditions that allow frostbite to occur can lead to hypothermia, which causes 646 deaths yearly.
Frostbite occurs when the skin and body tissue just underneath it freezes. Frostbite can affect any part of the body, however frostbite typically affects smaller areas of the body that are exposed to extremely cold temperatures such as your fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. At the first stage of frostbite, the skin is irritated but doesn't cause permanent damage. Severe frostbite damages the skin, tissues, and muscle, and leads to infection and nerve damage. Frostbite is a result of the body's survival mechanisms. During extremely cold weather the body's first defense is to protect vital organs by cutting back on circulation to your extremities. With less blood flow, these areas eventually freeze.
Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature dips below 96 degrees Fahrenheit. It's doesn't take extreme temperatures for your body to be at risk, even an air temperature of 60 degrees is low enough to trigger hypothermia if you are not dressed properly. In addition, age, health, poor circulation, and some medications can make you more susceptible to hypothermia. Left untreated, hypothermia eventually leads to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and to death.
So how can you avoid frostbite and hypothermia?
One way is to avoid going outside during extremely cold weather, especially if the wind chill is -50 degrees below zero. If you have to go out, limit your time outdoors, protect all exposed parts of your body, keep your skin dry, and stay out of the wind whenever possible. It's also important to drink plenty of non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic beverages since hydration increases the blood's volume helping to prevent frostbite.
Signs of frostbite include:
Frostbite occurs in several stages. The first stage is frostnip, this mild form of frostbite is when your skin turns red and feels very cold. You will experience prickling and numbness in the affected area with continued exposure. At this stage, frostnip does not permanently damage the skin.
The second stage is superficial frostbite. This is when the reddened skin turns white or very pale. Your skin may remain soft, but some ice crystals may form in the affected tissue. As you warm the area your skin may appear mottled, blue or purple and you may notice stinging, burning and swelling. Blisters may appear in 24-36 hours after rewarming.
The final stage is severe or deep frostbite. At this stage, all layers of the skin including underlying tissues are affected. You may experience a loss of sensation of cold or pain, and your joints and muscles may no longer work. As you warm the area your skin will appear black and hard as the tissues die. Blisters form 24-48 hours after rewarming.
First aid dos and don'ts: