How Extremely Cold Weather Can Affect Your Body

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
In case the videos of boiling water freezing in mid-air haven't convinced you, it's absurdly cold in parts of the country right now, thanks to an epic polar vortex. Temperatures in the Midwest dropped to the negative 30s today, which is colder than in Antarctica, according to the Associated Press. While there are plenty of Twitter jokes about the cold, and kids are probably thrilled to have off from school, the weather is dangerous right now, so it's important to take it seriously.
In cold weather, like some people are experiencing right now, your body loses heat faster than it produces it, which can lead to health problems like hypothermia, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Hypothermia occurs when your body uses up its stored energy, and your body temperature drops below 95 degrees. At that point, your body and organs essentially can't do their jobs, according to the Mayo Clinic. In extreme cases, if left untreated, your heart and lungs can stop and you can die.
Most of the time, you get hypothermia after going outside in the cold weather or being wet in the cold air, according to the CDC. It doesn't have to be freezing outside to get hypothermia; in some cases, people get it when it's a balmy 40 degrees. Shivering is the first sign that someone has hypothermia. When you're in the cold, your muscles contract and relax rapidly (aka shiver) in an effort to make heat and increase your core body temperature, according to MedlinePlus. You might also get tired, because it takes a lot of energy to make up for the lost heat. Confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, and slurred speech are some other symptoms of hypothermia to be on the lookout for, according to the CDC.
Once you notice symptoms, you should get into a warm indoor room, and remove any wet clothing. If your body temperature is below 95 degrees, you'll need medical attention ASAP. It's important to prioritize warming the middle of the body — like the neck, head, and groin — first, according to the CDC. Warm blankets, towels, or clothing will also help increase body temperature. Drinking a warm, non-alcoholic beverage can also help, so long as the person is conscious, per the CDC.
Hypothermia sounds pretty scary, because it is scary. The best thing you can do to avoid hypothermia is stay indoors, or dress properly when you go outdoors. That advice might sound obvious, but it bears repeating! To review: you need a scarf that covers your face and mouth, a hat, a water-resistant coat, gloves, water-resistant boots, and lots of layers, according to the CDC. (The National Weather Service recommends wearing more than three layers on the top and two on the bottom in extreme cold temperatures.) Wearing goggles can also help protect your eyes from any tearing or wind.
Once you are bundled up, you shouldn't stay out longer than 30 minutes if you can manage it. According to the National Weather Service, depending on the windchill and temperature, frostbite, a condition in which the skin and tissue below to freeze, can occur within five minutes of being outdoors. So, while your boiling water Instagram might be cool right now, it's probably not worth the very real health risk.

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