By Clellie Allen
WAKE FOREST — It’s been a while since we’ve had an appreciable snow. And as we are going to press, we still don’t know if we’ll be in the 2-inch or 6-inch band of snow showers.
Because we so rarely get long periods of truly winter weather, it can be easy to forget that there are just as many dangers with cold as there are in extreme heat — maybe even more so as the winter months are the time of the most house fires.
Here are some helpful tips about everything from windchill to heating.
What’s the danger
in a little shiver?
Wind chill can be serious because heat is carried away faster from the skin, driving down body temperature. This can lead to frostbite or hypothermia — low body temperature.
Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to cold. Kids in particular often don’t pay attention to how cold or tired they are getting when playing in snow and will need to be reminded to take breaks and warm up.
Warning signs of hypothermia are uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness and apparent exhaustion.
To determine if hypothermia is affecting someone, take the person’s body temperature. If it is below 95°F (35°C), get immediate medical help.
Frostbite or frostnip can happen with or without hypothermia and usually affects more exposed areas like fingers, toes, nose, ears, checks and chin. If your skin is feeling numb, especially on the face, then you might not know frostbite is happening.
Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite. The skin turns bright red and feels very cold. Prickling and numbness can take place. When you get back into warmth, the area may feel painful and tingle. Frostnip does not cause permanent damage.
Frostbite, however, can quickly follow frostnip and is a medical emergency.
At first, the skin will go from red to white or very pale. The skin may remain soft, but ice crystals begin to form in the tissue. The area may actually feel warm to touch. If warmed or thawed at this stage, the skin may appear blue or purple and mottled. Fluid-filled blisters may form in 1-2 days.
If untreated, the freezing will continue through all layers of the skin and into the muscle or other tissue below. At this point, complete numbness can set in. Joints and muscles can stop working. Large blisters will form after the tissue is warmed back up and turns black as the tissue is actually dead.
Gradually warming the exposed areas is key to both frostnip and frostbite. The old wives tale of rubbing the area with snow is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
The best response is to first get out of the cold. If just frostnip is suspected, put affected areas in warm, never hot, water and allow to slowly warm up. Tingling and burning sensations should be expected to gradually diminish. Don’t use direct heat like a heating pad or hold area near a stove or fire as burns can happen.
If frostbite is suspected, get emergency medical care. If blisters form later where frostnip was observed, seek medical attention as well.
Layers, layers, layers
Some obvious points in dressing for cold, snowy weather are to stay warm and dry. Layering clothes is essential. Think three layers: underwear, insulation and outer shell.
Underwear: Provides basic insulation and moves moisture away from skin. Long underwear, or thin, snug-fitting pants with a long-sleeved T-shirt or turtleneck are some choices.
Insulation: Use one or more layers, depending on conditions. Sweaters, sweatshirts and other similar garments are good insulators.
Outer Shell: Choose garments that are windproof, and preferably waterproof, such as those made of coated nylon or polyester. Many shells, such as ski-style jackets or parkas, combine the outer and insulating layers. A good fit is crucial. If the shell is too big, heat loss can occur rapidly. If it is too small, you may not have enough room for insulating layers.
Plan from head to toe: Wear a hat, which can save half your body heat loss. If needed, wear layers of pants to keep your legs warm. Gloves, and especially mittens, with warm socks help protect fingers and toes.
While the current event is forecast to be mainly a snow event, even snow, if heavy enough, can bring down tree branches and cause power outages.
Possessing a safe, second source of heat is vital in the winter, more so if you live in a home that rapidly loses heat if the main source is lost.
Methods of heating that are not safe, under any circumstance, include:
•Ovens: Lighting a gas oven and leaving the door open can lead to fire or carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.
•Grills: Lighting a grill of any kind inside is deadly dangerous because of CO poisoning.
•Boiling water: Yes, folks have tried to heat homes by boiling water. It doesn’t really work and if you let the pot boil dry, you can start a fire.
•Inside fires, not in a fire place: Without adequate ventilation through a chimney, fires can lead to CO build up.
•Sitting in a car with heat running: Getting in a car and running the heat can be extremely dangerous if anything occludes the exhaust pipe or it is done in an enclosed area like a garage. CO will quickly build up. It would be better to drive to a friend’s house or shelter than sit in a running car.
Potentially dangerous ways to heat a home include:
•Space heaters: While space heaters can be used safely, they are one of the most common causes of house fires in winter months because people put them too close to materials that can catch fire. Also, folks often use extension cords which can overheat themselves and cause a fire.
•Kerosene heaters: When kerosene heaters are well-maintained and well-placed, they have the ability to be a solid source of home heat. However, rusted heat exchangers can lead to carbon monoxide off-gassing. You should never sleep in the same room with an unvented gas or kerosene heater. Also, kids running around kerosene heaters is dangerous as is putting the heater near combustible materials. And if the heater is ever filled with something other than approved kerosene, an explosion and fire are the likely outcomes.
•Generators: Using generators for backup power is a great idea unless you place the generator in a garage or too near a heat pump unit where the CO can get sucked into the house ventilation system.
•Unvented gas fireplace: If the gas fireplace in your home is really for decorative purposes, then it could be dangerous to operate for longer than about four hours.
What is CO and what to do if exposed
The initial symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to the flu but without the fever. They include, headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, disorientation, and eventually loss of consciousness.
In more technical terms, CO bonds to the hemoglobin in red blood cells, preventing them from carrying oxygen throughout the body. Because CO is a colorless, tasteless, and odorless gas that is quickly absorbed by the body and the symptoms often resemble other illnesses, it is often known as the “silent killer.”
If you experience symptoms that you think could be from CO poisoning, get fresh air immediately. Open doors and windows, turn off combustion appliances (don’t forget gas hot water heaters!), and leave the house. Go to an emergency room and tell the physician you suspect CO poisoning.
If CO poisoning has occurred, it often can be diagnosed by a blood test done soon after exposure. CO poisoning is always an emergency. Even mild exposure should be evaluated by medical professionals.
—Sources: N.C. Cooperative Extension, Colorado State University Extension, National Weather Service, N.C. Emergency Management, Cumberland County Emergency Management, MayoClinic.org