Polar Vortex and Winter Weather: Health Hazards of Working or Playing Outside


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Extreme cold temperatures can cause many health issues, especially for those working outside.  Photo by Richardfabi

Extreme cold temperatures can cause many health issues, especially for those working outside. Photo by Richardfabi

The United States is currently under a deep freeze, or polar vortex as weather experts are calling it. With extreme temperatures, windchills can feel like 50 and 60 degrees below zero. Being outside for even a matter of minutes can result in some life threatening conditions, especially for those who have to work outside, or anyone living without shelter.

Cold Stress

Extremely cold temperatures can result in health emergencies in those without shelter, outdoor workers, and anyone that works in places that are poorly insulated or without heat.

Although the term “cold stress” is defined differently throughout the United States, with dropping temperatures and increasing wind speeds, your body heat can quickly drop.

There are five cold stress conditions that may affect you, your family, or other loved ones this winter, if you’ll be outside for prolonged periods for any reason.

What Is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs when you are exposed to cold temperatures and your body loses heat faster that it can produce heat, causing your body temperature to be abnormally low.  When your body temperature is too low, the heat loss begins to affect other parts of your body, especially your brain. You may not be able to think clearly, and may not realize that hypothermia has set in. Early symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, fatigue, loss of coordination, and confusion. Later symptoms include no shivering, blue skin, dilated pupils, slowed pulse and respiration rate, and loss of consciousness.

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If you notice someone outdoors with symptoms of hypothermia, request medical care, take the person to a warm location and remove any wet clothing. According to the CDC, you should warm their core area first, then outer extremities. Start by warming up their chest, neck, head, and groin using an electric blanket if available, or using skin-to-skin contact under dry blankets, sheets, or clothes. Keep his or her head and neck wrapped as well. You can offer warm liquids if the person is conscious, but not alcohol. If the victim has no pulse, begin CPR immediately.

The U.S. Navy treats a fisherman for hypothermia. Image by U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class J. Maurer.

The U.S. Navy treats a fisherman for hypothermia. Image by U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class J. Maurer.

Immersion Hypothermia

Fishermen and boaters run a risk of falling into the water and dying when waters are frigid. Cold water immersion creates a specific condition known as immersion hypothermia. Immersion hypothermia results in a faster temperature drop, and is significantly more dangerous than standard hypothermia; water pulls heat away from the body 25 times faster than air.

Immersion hypothermia can set in when water temperatures are below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The length of time someone survive in cold water depends on many factors; according to the University of Minnesota, the person’s body size, amount of fat, ability to swim, the type of clothing he or she is wearing, flotation devises, and even the person’s will to live can play a role in survival.

When rescuing a person from cold waters, remove all wet clothing and take the same steps as you would in regular hypothermia. According to the University of Minnesota, it is also important to be very gentle with the hypothermic person, as their internal organs are now very sensitive to physical shock. The victim should also try to move as little as possible so that blood from their cold extremities won’t reach their core too quickly. A cold heart is susceptible to a severely abnormal heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation, which can be life-threatening.


Frostbite happens when your cells freeze. This causes a loss of feeling and color to the affected area. This condition most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Symptoms include numbness, tingling, or stinging, aching, and bluish or pale, waxy skin. Frostbite can be severe and lead to permanent damage and even amputation. Anyone who isn’t properly dressed for outside weather and those who have poor circulation are most at risk for frostbite.

First aid for frostbite includes getting the affected person into a warm room. Unless absolutely necessary, don’t let the him or her walk on frostbitten toes; that will only increase the damage. Soak the affected area in warm (not hot) water or use body heat to warm affected parts – warm fingers in armpits for example. Do not rub or massage any area that might have frostbite, as this can cause more damage as well. Don’t use heating pads, heating lamps, or fireplaces to warm frostbitten areas – the skin can burn without anyone noticing, since there’s no feeling in the area.

Trench Foot: What is Immersion Foot?

Trench foot, also known as ‘immersion foot’ happens when there is prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Trench foot can occur even when temperatures are 60 degrees, if feet are wet long enough, reports the CDC. Wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet and the skin on the foot begins to die due to lack of oxygen and nutrients. Symptoms of trench foot include swelling, numbness, leg cramps, tingling pain, blisters, ulcers. bleeding under the skin, and gangrene. Removing wet shoes and socks and drying off feet and wrapping them in a warm towel will help. Like with frostbite, avoid walking on feet affected by this condition to prevent further damage.

What are Chilblains

Chilblains are the result of repeated exposure to temperatures from just above freezing up to 60 degrees. The exposure to the cold can damage the capillaries under the skin, and damage is permanent. Symptoms include redness, itching, tingling, possibly blistering, swelling, and in severe cases, sores called ulcers. Warm the area up slowly (generally cheeks, ears, fingers and toes), your doctor may recommend the use of corticosteroids to relieve itching and swelling, Keep any blisters or ulcers clean and cover them with a bandage.

Freezing Weather and Health Hazards

These are serious health hazards that can leave permanent damage or result in death. The CDC recommends that we all avoid working in extreme weather conditions, but if you can’t avoid it, wear several layers of clothing, protect any exposed skin such as your face, wear boots that are water proof and insulated, and take breaks in warm locations. Also keep extra socks, hats, gloves, coats, a change of clothes, and hot liquids somewhere where you can have access to them in case of an emergency. Keep in check and monitor your coworker’s condition as well, to avoid health hazards associated with this freezing winter weather.

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