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When you must go out in the cold

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[JAN. 14, 2005] 

Dressing for cold weather

When the temperature drops below freezing and the wind chill factor is below zero, it is best to stay indoors. But, if you must go outdoors, dress properly for the weather. Follow these suggestions to make yourself more comfortable and protect your body from excessive heat loss:

  • Wear several layers of lightweight clothing rather than one or two layers of heavy garments. The air between the layers of clothing acts as insulation to keep you warmer.
  • Cover your head. You lose as much as 50 percent of your body heat through your head.
  • Wear mittens rather than fingered gloves. The contact of your fingers keeps your hands warmer.
  • Wear warm leg coverings and heavy socks or two pairs of lightweight socks.
  • Wear waterproof boots or sturdy shoes that give you maximum traction.
  • Cover your ears and the lower part of your face. The ears, nose, chin and forehead are most susceptible to frostbite. Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect the lungs from directly inhaling extremely cold air.
  • Use sunglasses to protect your eyes from winter glare.


Hypothermia -- a drop in body temperature to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or less -- can be fatal if not detected promptly and treated properly. In the United States, about 700 deaths occur each year from hypothermia. The condition usually develops over a period of time -- anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Even mildly cool indoor temperatures of 60 degrees to 65 degrees F can trigger hypothermia.

Infants and the elderly are particularly at risk of hypothermia.

Infants younger than 1 year of age should never sleep in a cold room because they lose body heat more easily than adults and because, unlike adults, infants cannot make enough body heat by shivering. Provide warm clothing and blankets for infants, and try to maintain a warm indoor temperature. If the temperature cannot be maintained, make temporary arrangements to stay elsewhere. In an emergency, you can keep an infant warm using your own body heat. If you must sleep, take precautions to prevent rolling on the baby. Pillows and other soft bedding also can present a risk of smothering; remove them from the area near the baby.

Older adults often make less body heat because of a slower metabolism and less physical activity. If you are 65 years of age or older, check the temperature in your home often during severely cold weather. Also, check on elderly friends and neighbors frequently to ensure that their homes are adequately heated.

When the body temperature drops, the blood vessels near the surface of the body narrow to reduce heat loss. Muscles begin to tighten to make heat. If the body temperature continues to drop, the person will begin to shiver. The shivering continues until the body temperature drops to about 90 degrees F. If it drops below this point, a life-threatening situation exists.

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There are several signs that a person may be suffering from hypothermia. For example, the condition can deprive victims of judgment and reasoning power because the cold affects the brain. Signs to look for are:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Change in appearance, such as a puffy face
  • Weak pulse
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Very slow, shallow breathing
  • Coma or deathlike appearance, if the body temperature drops to or below 86 degrees

If you notice these symptoms in a person, take his or her temperature. If it is 95 degrees F or below, call a doctor or ambulance, or take the victim directly to a hospital. To prevent further heat loss, wrap the patient in a warm blanket. You also can apply a hot water bottle or electric heating pad (on a low setting) to the person's abdomen.

If the patient is alert, give small quantities of warm food or drink. Do not give alcoholic beverages.

Do not give a hypothermia victim a hot shower or bath. It could cause shock.

Do not try to treat hypothermia at home. The condition should be treated in a hospital.

If you have elderly relatives or friends who live alone, encourage them to set their thermostats above 65 degrees F to avoid hypothermia.


The parts of the body most affected by frostbite are exposed areas of the face (cheeks, nose, chin, forehead), the ears, wrists, hands and feet. When spending time outdoors during cold weather, be alert for signs of frostbite. Frostbitten skin is whitish and stiff, and the area will feel numb rather than painful. If you notice these signs, take immediate action.

To treat frostbite, warm the affected part of the body gradually. Wrap the frostbitten area in blankets, sweaters or coats. If no warm wrappings are available, place frostbitten hands under your armpits or use your body to cover the affected area. Then seek medical attention immediately.

Do not rub frostbitten areas. The friction can damage the tissue.

Do not apply snow to frostbitten areas. Because its temperature is below freezing, snow will aggravate the condition.

If frostbite occurs, take emergency action to begin warming the affected body part; then seek medical attention immediately.

[Illinois Department of Public Health]

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