WASHINGTON — The Washington D.C. area is about to enter the deep freeze and that frigid air can be hazardous to your health.
There are two different things to worry about. “One is frostbite and the other is hypothermia,” says Mary Jean Schumann, interim dean of the George Washington University School of Nursing.
Schumann says they impact the body in different ways.
Frostbite is actually a frost burn. “It is doing the same kind of damage that you would do if your skin had been attacked by something hot,” says Schumann.
The signs are numbness, a white or grayish yellow skin area and skin that feels unusually firm or waxy.
It is, however, easy to prevent. The key is to dress in layers with the layer closest to the skin made of a fabric that can wick away moisture, and an outer layer that is windproof.
Covering the delicate skin on the face and hands is also paramount — and here, Schumann speaks from experience.
She recalls one day when she was living in Wisconsin, she went out to shovel snow and forgot to wear a hat. When she went back inside, her ear was numb and gradually — as she began to warm up — it started to feel like a burn.
“I just assumed I wasn’t going to be out there very long, and it was windy and I had frostbite,” she recalls.
Hypothermia can also be the result of prolonged exposure to the cold, but in this case, the body is losing heat faster than it can be produced.
Young children and the elderly are at greatest risk of hypothermia, but Schumann says she has seen it occur in patients of all ages.
The first sign of trouble is shivering. Others include slurred speech, confusion, exhaustion, and a loss of dexterity in the hands.
Hypothermia is more dangerous than frostbite, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it requires emergency medical care.
Frostbite is not as life threatening but still needs medical attention. If care is not available, the CDC suggests getting into a warm room and immersing the affected area in warm – not hot – water.