Stay Safe in the Cold
Extremely cold temperatures can be dangerous in a very short amount of time. Take care to protect yourself and others.
Winter weather brings cold temperatures. Take precautions to avoid injury and stay safe.
- Limit time outside when temperatures are extremely cold. Layer clothing and cover yourself as much as possible if you must be outside.
- If you need shelter from the cold during business hours, many public buildings and libraries offer it. More information on emergency daytime and overnight shelter options is available on the Office of Community and Economic Development's website.
- Check on friends, neighbors and relatives that may need assistance.
- Maintain emergency supplies in your home and vehicles. Cell phones, phone chargers, winter boots and extra clothes can be critical in an emergency.
- Do not leave pets outside or in vehicles. Limit their exposure to extreme temperatures too.
- Watch for signs of the most common cold-related problems - hypothermia and frostbite. Seek immediate medical attention, if needed.
Prevention and Treatment
Serious health problems can result from prolonged exposure to the cold. The most common cold-related problems are hypothermia and frostbite. The following information is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Winter Weather page.
Cold temperatures can cause your body to lose heat faster than it can be produced, which can cause hypothermia.
Warning Signs in Adults:
- shivering, exhaustion
- confusion, fumbling hands
- memory loss, slurred speech
Warning Signs in Infants:
- bright red, cold skin
- very low energy
What to Do
If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95°, the situation is an emergency—get medical attention immediately. If medical care is not available, begin warming the person, as follows:
- Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
- If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it.
- Warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head, and groin—using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
- Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
- After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
- Get medical attention as soon as possible.
A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately. Even if the victim appears dead, CPR should be provided. CPR should continue while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical aid becomes available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.
Frostbite is an injury to the body caused by freezing. It causes a loss of feeling and color in parts of the body.
At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin—frostbite may be beginning. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:
- a white or grayish-yellow skin area
- skin that feels unusually firm or waxy
A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.
What to Do
If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure, first determine whether the victim also shows signs of hypothermia, as described above. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance.
If there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes—this increases the damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
- Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical care. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider. It is a good idea to take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold-weather health problems. Knowing what to do is an important part of protecting your health and the health of others.
Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with extreme cold-weather conditions. By preparing your home and car in advance for winter emergencies, and by observing safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather, you can reduce the risk of weather-related health problems.
Visit Washtenaw County Emergency Management's Winter Storms page for local weather alerts and warnings.
See the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Winter Weather Frequently Asked Questions.