With windchill values of minus 50 and lower in the northwest today, residents are reminded to be safe when venturing out in the cold.

Stephanie Charles, Heath Promoter with the Northwestern Health Unit.

"One important factor, exposed skin can freeze within 10 to 30 minutes at windchill values below minus 28. On extremely cold days, with windchill values around minus 50, the time it takes for skin to freeze is between 2 and 5 minutes," she said

Charles says the main health risks in the cold weather are frost bite and hypothermia. Both are considered medical emergencies.

Frostbite is a condition where the freezing of skin and underlying tissues occurs. The frozen tissue dies because there is a lack of oxygen. Frostbite mostly affects the extremities, such as the nose, ears, fingers and toes. This is because these body parts are normally exposed to the cold more often and they do not have major muscles to help produce heat. Sometimes the damage is so severe that an amputation of the affected body part may be necessary.

Signs and symptoms:

Pale, gray, waxy skin that is cold to the touch
Swelling and blistering of the skin
Numbness and localized pain on the affected area

Prevention:

Dress in layers of warm clothing
Ensure that extremities are covered up with a hat, mittens or insulated gloves, scarf, neck warmer or face mask and insulated footwear
Cover all exposed skin

Hypothermia is a condition where the core body temperature drops to below plus 35 due to exposure to cold temperatures or cold water. As the body loses heat, internal organs begin to shut down and the heart can stop, which may lead to death.

Signs and symptoms:

Shivering, slurred speech, lack of coordination, weakness
Drowsiness or low energy
Slow, shallow breathing
Confusion
Pale skin colour

Prevention:

Dress in layers of warm clothing
Stay dry
Keep active
Reduce time of outdoor activities

Populations at increased risk of injury from extreme cold include:

Elderly
Infants and young children
Those with chronic conditions (e.g. heart diseases, respiratory diseases or asthma)
Those who are wet
Outdoor workers
Sport enthusiasts (hikers, skiers)
Homeless persons and those lacking shelter, proper clothing, or food
Those with underlying infections or physical disabilities

You can avoid cold-related illness by:

Checking weather forecast for your region before going outside
Planning ahead to reorganize activities (i.e. sporting events, recess, etc.) if it is too cold
Dressing warmly in layers
Wear a wind resistant jacket with a hat, scarf, neck tube or face mask
Wear warm and waterproof footwear
When the wind chill is significant, getting out of the wind and limiting the time you are outside
Staying dry
Remove wet clothing if possible or remove outer layers
Keeping active
Walking or running will help generate body heat, but try to avoid sweating
Watching for signs of frost-bite and hypothermia, especially if you work with or care for populations at higher risk.

Call 911 immediately if you are caring for someone who has been exposed to cold temperatures and shows any of the above signs and symptoms.

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