Dangerous deep freeze across the US: How to prepare for the polar vortex

Frostbite can happen in as little as five minutes.
Image: Polar vortex to bring sub-zero temperatures
A High School student from China takes a selfie along Lake Michigan in Chicago on Jan. 29, 2019.Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA

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By John Torres, M.D. and Felix Gussone, MD

This week, millions of Americans are going to experience temperatures their generation has never seen before — a life-threatening polar vortex sweeping across the country. Some places, like Chicago, are bracing for temperatures as low as -20 F and brutal wind chills of -50 F. At least 75 million Americans in the East, Midwest and Deep South are facing an arctic blast.

Temperatures this low are not just uncomfortable, they can pose a serious threat to your health.

As an emergency room doctor there’s one thing I see in nearly every patient who comes in with problems caused by bitter cold weather — they weren’t properly prepared for it.

Here are some ways to protect you and your family:

How quickly does frostbite set in?

Some parts of the country are expected to face temperatures as low as -20 F and wind chills of -50 F which can put you at risk of frostbite in as little as 5 to 10 minutes.

But the first thing you’ll notice even before frostbite, is what’s called frostnip. It’s the tingling feeling that hurts — your body’s warning sign that you have to warm up that body part quickly.

When that cold part goes numb, you’ve got frostbite, and that’s a medical emergency. Although frostbite can affect any part of the body the areas most vulnerable are the fingers, toes, ears, and nose, along with the cheeks and chin. Most people cover up these areas but tend to forget about the tips of their ears.

Dress appropriately

Wearing several layers of loose fitting, lightweight, warm clothing will keep you warmer than one layer of heavy clothing, especially if the outer garments are tightly woven and water repellent.

Wear mittens, which are warmer than gloves — fingers together create more warmth than fingers apart.

Wear a hat and cover your mouth and nose with a scarf to protect your lungs

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Fingers and toes tend to get cold the quickest: Pocket warmers placed inside gloves and boots can help keep them warm, but don’t put them in direct contact with your skin to avoid getting burned.

Shivering is a warning sign

Shivering is a sign that your body temperature is dropping.

You’re not in medical danger yet, but you’re heading toward hypothermia, or dangerously low body temperature. It’s time to get indoors and warm up.

If you're still in the cold environment, these are four signs that you’ve crossed into moderate or severe hypothermia:

  • you’re experiencing clumsiness or confusion.
  • you feel drowsy.
  • your shivering gets worse, or even stops altogether.

In that case, get out of the cold immediately and seek a warm place. Get out of wet clothes. Bundle up in warm blankets.

Drink the right beverages

When it’s cold out it’s easy to forget to drink water because it doesn’t seem like you’re losing as much moisture from perspiration. Cold water might not sound appealing to everyone, so try a cup of hot herbal tea.

But avoid that hot toddy or any other alcoholic drink.

Alcohol can give you a false sense of warmth because it increases blood flow to the arms and legs which makes you feel warmer. What it actually does instead is lower your core temperature which can lead to hypothermia.

Alcohol also reduces the body’s ability to shiver and can impair a person’s judgment — you might not feel the need to put on gloves, dress appropriately and go inside to warm up.

The hat myth

Wearing a hat is good; it keeps you warm. But you do NOT lose most of your body heat from your head.

The heat you lose from an uncovered head is not different from the heat you’d lose from an uncovered arm.

The myth started after an Army study from the 1950’s found that soldiers who were bundled up except for their head, lost most of their body heat from their head.

Today, more than 60 years later, we know that the opposite is also true — if they had bundled up their head and not their legs, they would have lost most of their body heat through their legs.

That's why it’s important to wear both a hat and long pants when it’s cold. Leave the shorts for spring, guys.

The bottom line: Only go outside when you really need to, dress appropriately, if you start getting cold get inside and don’t forget your pets – they’re just as sensitive to the brutal temperatures as you are.

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