Most of the USA goes into a deep freeze at some point during the winter. Sadly, people have been known to die because they get stuck in their cars during blizzards. Some have frozen to death in their own homes when power was lost and the heat went off. Tragedies to be sure.
Why can’t humans survive in the severe cold? What happens to the body?
Damage to the eyes:
Your eyeballs can’t really freeze solid in ordinary outdoor activities, but you could do serious damage to them if you don’t wear goggles in extreme temperatures. Runners note: the eyes might tear a bit more, but the eyelids will blink, and deliver the salt (naturally found in tears) to coat the eyeball, effectively lowering the freezing point of the tears themselves. It is possible for the eyeball to freeze temporarily during extreme sports – like the challenging cross country Iditarod races in Alaska – but lesser symptoms (blurred vision, frostbite) can also impair a contestant’s ability to complete the course. Doctor intervention might be necessary if either of these problems occur, because otherwise, injury to the body can be permanent.
Damage to the skin/muscles:
Feet, fingers, and toes can freeze to the point of pieces falling off, or needing to be amputated. Frostnip can freeze the skin, but frostbite can freeze not just the skin, but muscles, tissues and fat beneath it. Plus, if the wind chill drops below -40F, your skin can freeze within minutes if you’re not wearing the proper gear.
I had the wrong gloves with me while on a ski trip in colder-than-we-expected temperatures years ago. True story: it only took ten minutes for my fingers to be in great pain. I knew there was a problem after five and headed to the lodge. I got first aid, and new gloves, but I stayed inside until the outside temperatures rose in the afternoon. My thumbs hurt now, just thinking about it.
Sound scary? How about this: the longer you’re exposed, the more likely it is that any damage will be permanent and/or involve amputation. I got lucky. I was minutes away from help.
Cold can kill:
Listen to the weather forecasters and government officials when they tell you to stay indoors during extremely cold weather. If you’re not dressed properly or are in a place without shelter, you might die in the wrong combination of circumstances. Every year, people in North America die from a variety of situations where exposure to the elements overtook the body’s ability to cope. In the first week of January, 2018, when temperatures dropped unexpectedly across wide swaths of North America, ten people died.
The human body maintains a core temperature of 98.6F (37 C) and when it drops, hypothermia can set in. Even a 4-5 degree drop, if accompanied by constant shivering, tiredness, and rapid breathing, can signal the onset.
We wear insulated jackets, gloves, and hats to avoid getting chilled. They trap the air around our bodies and keep in the heat. But, if the clothes get wet (say you fall through the ice while skating) the insulating effects are gone and there will be rapid body heat loss, as if you weren’t wearing that winter jacket at all. Interesting factoid: Your body type also determines how quickly you lose heat: Tall, slender people become cold much faster than shorter, heavier types.
There are levels of hypothermia. In moderate hypothermia, symptoms might include poor coordination, slurred speech, confusion, and slowed breathing. In severe hypothermia, symptoms might make it hard to tell if the person is alive or dead. They’ll lose consciousness, their breathing might become too shallow to detect, the pulse will be weak, or irregular, and pupils will be dilated. Severe hypothermia is often fatal.
How could this happen? Why would people put themselves into a situation where they might lose limbs, or even die? That forgotten bottle of milk at the store that is 20 miles away? The unexpected emergency trip to a sick relative, when you left home before the storm arrived? Braving the elements to prove something to your friends? Extreme Sports competitions? You name it. Be prepared and most of the risk for a bad ending goes away.
Dress in layers, wear a hat and gloves, wear goggles or glasses when in the snow, cover exposed skin, bring pets indoors, stock the car with water and blankets. Read “Snow Shoveling and Heart Attacks,” and “Get Ready for the Blizzard” for more prevention/survival tips.
Now that you’ve read all the bad things about getting too cold for your own good, remember that First Responders – police, firefighters, and EMS personnel – have to be out in the worst of the worst conditions. They go to work so that you can be rescued or saved from harm.
Be kind. Follow directions. Stay home if you can. Dress appropriately, no matter what activity takes you out into the cold.
For more information about the effects of severe cold on the body, see: http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/safety/hypocold.shtml
“Blizzard? What blizzard? It’s 70 degrees outside!” That’s Sheila talking as she looks over my shoulder.
I’ll have you know that there has been snow falling in the northwestern part of the USA already. In 2016, Montana and Colorado had measurable snow in October, no less. Also in 2016, in mid-November, Minnesota had so much of the white stuff that there were cars and trucks stuck on the roads for a while.
I never think about being prepared to get stuck for hours because I live in one of the most densely populated areas of the country. If traffic stops for any length of time, people have been known to get out of their cars, leave them on the highway and walk to the houses close by. That can cause a LOT of headaches when snow plows come through during the blizzards.
But, it’s not an option to leave the car in the middle of no place during a blizzard when you might be miles away from help. It’s usually warmer inside the car, plus it’s a shelter until help does arrive.
What do you do when you get caught traveling to a vacation spot or a storm moves in more quickly than the weatherman predicted? It is possible to die if help is a long time coming or your car gets buried in snow, so how do you avoid that?
To borrow a phrase from the Boy Scouts, Be Prepared.
If the weatherman isn’t sure about the path of the storm and you need to get somewhere a couple of hours away, follow these tips:
If the storm hits unexpectedly while you are on the road and you can no longer see to drive (or the roads are hazardous) stop the car and pull over if you can.
Be smart about it and travel safely this winter. Better yet – stay off the roads until they are clear.
*Photo by Patti Phillips
Snow shoveling and heart attacks. It seems like every winter we hear stories of otherwise seemingly healthy men, pitching over in the snow. Just a few days ago, I read about an off-duty cop (only in his 40s) dying while helping his neighbors dig out around their house.
Good guy on and off the job helping somebody in need, with a tragic ending to the story. And he wasn’t the only one. More than 30 people nationwide are reported to have died after shoveling snow last year.
Why does that happen? And what can you do to prevent it from happening to you?
First, let’s talk about the ‘why.’
It’s not just about the physical exertion of lifting the wet, heavy, sticky snow that Storm Jonas delivered this past weekend to most of the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. The air is colder than we are used to breathing, and the cold air causes blood vessels to constrict. Also (and news to me) cold air can cause clotting, which could lead to a blockage. So anybody with a known or unknown risk for high blood pressure is immediately placing more stress on the body before he/she ever lifts the first shovel full of snow.
We tend to shovel snow without warming up and without cooling down – both actions placing more stress on the heart. Lots of arm action also increases blood pressure. Combine all those typical factors together, and anybody that is at-risk already, may be in trouble out in the snow.
How do we keep from keeling over?
Make sure that you take care of yourself, so that you can enjoy life on the golf course after the snow melts.
*Photos by Patti Phillips, taken in North Carolina and Texas.