December 29, 2021

Cold a common concern in Wisconsin’s winter months

A thermostat propped up in a snow embankment

Madison, Wis. – As many turn to outdoor winter activities during the pandemic, the public should be prepared for the colder winter months.

The omicron variant has caused a surge in COVID-19 cases, and outdoor sports might become more popular this winter. But there are risks, especially for those who may be trying outdoor winter activities for the first time, according to Dr. Lee Faucher, medical director, Burn and Wound Center, UW Health, and professor of surgery, UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Two primary risks stem from exposure to cold, hypothermia and frostbite, he said.

Technically a burn, frostbite generally occurs when bare or under-protected skin is exposed to very cold temperatures (well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit). Depending on the temperature and skin exposure, frostbite can set in more quickly than most expect, within minutes when the air temperature or wind chill get below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than the body can produce it, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This can cause someone to think unclearly or not move very well. It can occur in even cooler temperatures – warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit – if someone is sweating or wet, which can occur when someone is performing a winter sport, for example, Faucher said.

“What makes hypothermia so dangerous is that often the victim isn’t even aware it’s happening because it slows the mind’s thought processes,” he said.

Combating these two wintertime threats to outdoor activity can be much simpler than one might think, according to Faucher.

“It’s really about being aware of the weather conditions and planning properly before going out,” he said. “Little things can make a big difference, like making sure to have an extra set of warm clothes or a warm blanket in your car, just in case.”

When heading outside, always check the weather forecast, take the wind chill into account and dress accordingly. Other recommendations include:

  • Keep your clothing dry (especially gloves and socks)

  • Consider waterproof boots and gloves when outside for long periods of time

  • Wear layers of clothing

  • Add a windproof layer on days when wind chill is a factor

  • Avoid alcohol when doing outdoor activities as this can alter your perception of the temperature and cause dehydration

  • Always have extra warm clothes and blankets in the car

  • If planning for outdoor activities, make sure to let people know where you are going and when to expect you to come home

  • Always watch your friends get into their home when you drop them off at night - don’t assume they made it in safe

Signs of mild frostbite include hands or feet turning pink or red after rewarming with normal sensation restored. If hands or feet appear purplish and are numb despite warming up, this is a sign of severe frostbite that requires immediate medical attention.

If large clear or bloody blisters form on your hands or feet after warming up, this is a sign of frostbite injury that requires emergency medical attention. Do not try to rewarm at home.

Indications of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss and slurred speech. If you notice these symptoms in someone, take their temperature, if you can. If it is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, get medical help immediately.