BlessWorld Foundation International

Affecting the World Through Health
A Global Health Initiative

Extreme Temperature Conditions: Cold Exposure



The human body has a remarkable ability to adapt to variable cold weather conditions because as the environmental temperature reduces, the body adjusts by increasing heat gain through shivering, reduced sweating and increased physical activity. However, if there is as little as more than 2° drop in the body temperature due to exposure to extreme cold weather conditions, the body may lose its ability to maintain the core body temperature around normal range which can cause a number of deaths that are preventable when proper measures are taken. Just as hot weather and heat related problems are not limited to hotter parts of the world like middle east and Africa, cold weather exposure and cold related problems are also not limited to very cold parts of the world .Thus, the unique and paradoxical nature of the climate change problem- everywhere is getting hotter and colder!!!Although this is a general public health concern, Canada and other colder parts of the world like Russia and Iceland face more cold related health problems.

These problems can range from lifestyle limitations to predisposition to some health conditions and injuries. If you’ve lived in Canada, for example, you would have probably woken up to find your door covered in ice, plus the weather can be so cold that the streets will be covered in snow- these can really affect movement leading to physical inactivity. Moreover, some people tend to smoke more to keep warm; this negative lifestyle modification can adversely affect health since smoking is a risk factor for many chronic health conditions. In addition to the hindrance to movement and lifestyle changes, people may feel a numbing sensation on their fingertips… something medically referred to as raynaud phenomenon, particularly common in very cold temperatures. For asthmatic or allergic people, there may be significant increase and more frequent puffs of their inhaler. There are also more common upper respiratory tract infections, mostly viral-like common cold which tend to resolve on their own. Finally, there are cold related injuries which mostly affect people that work outside. These include

  • Chilblains: redness, itching, swelling due to repeated exposure to temperatures above 0° but less than 16°
  • Trench foot and immersion foot: pain, swelling, tingling on the legs or rarely the hands due to prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions
  • Frost nip and frost bites: these are freezing cold injuries that result in pain, stinging skin sensation, paleness and waxy skin. It usually starts on the extremities such as skin of the toes, fingers, ear lobes, nose and cheeks but in more serious cases can involve more body parts.

These injuries can be prevented by staying indoors and going out only when necessary. Also, dressing warm before going out and keeping up with daily weather advice are essential to protecting oneself from extreme cold. Unfortunately, if you’re ever affected or happen to be around an individual affected by these cold injuries, carefully follow the following first aid tips by CCOHS:

  • Never ignore numbness. If you feel numb or tingly, take steps to warm the area immediately. (e.g., put your hands under your armpits, or pull your arms into the inside of your jacket for more direct contact with the body)
  • If possible, move the victim to a warm area.
  • Remove wet clothing, and gently loosen or remove constricting clothing or jewellery that may restrict circulation.
  • Warm the person by wrapping them in blankets or by putting them on dry clothing. Cover the head and neck. Warm the person slowly. Avoid direct heat which can burn the skin.
  • Loosely cover the affected area with a sterile dressing. Place some gauze between fingers and toes to absorb moisture and prevent them from sticking together.
  • If the person is alert, give them liquids to drink.
  • Check for signs of hypothermia and seek medical attention. If necessary quickly transport the victim to an emergency care facility
  • Treat the person gently and monitor breathing
  • DO NOT attempt to rewarm any affected frostbite area
  • DO NOT thaw the area if it could freeze again
  • DO NOT rub area or apply snow
  • DO NOT permit victim to drink alcohol or smoke

Conclusively, prolonged exposure to cold with complete loss of the body’s thermoregulatory system can result in hypothermia-the most serious condition of cold exposure and a medical emergency. Hence, if a victim progresses from vigorous shivering, complaining of cold, impaired judgement and lack of coordination to unresponsiveness, reduced or no shivering and no pulse, quickly separate the victim from cold when you recognize the symptoms, do a CPR and seek medical help immediately.

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