Question of the Week

January 19, 2004


My freshman year in college, I moved across the country with my California wardrobe (which did not include a coat). Much to the amusement of my friends who had grown up in areas where temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit were not considered bone chilling, I learned to cope and dress for the weather. Cold days did not lead to cancelled classes. The ice storm that hit the morning of mid-terms did not close the school. Who knew that people functioned under such conditions?

I had a lot to learn. Where to even start?

This past week, some parts of the country have had to deal with real cold. Wind chills have been closer to minus 40 degrees F. Schools and parents have had to think about how to keep students safe.

"Schools closed, including hundreds of districts and private schools in Massachusetts, where some children had suffered frostbite symptoms and the authorities feared that more would be stricken walking to school or waiting for the bus....
"Worcester's superintendent, James Caradonio, said the district's 26,000 students either walk to school or take the bus, and weather forecasters were saying that frostbite could occur in 10 minutes. 'There's a very slim margin of error,' he said. 'If you don't do it right, you're frostbitten.'...
"One of the few districts that stayed open was Wayland, an affluent suburb west of Boston...[the superintendent, Gary A. Burton] said. 'It is New England, it is going to snow, it is going to get cold. While we are concerned about the safety of children, we also expect parents to know how to dress children so that they can go out in the cold....'"
New York Times

Learning to dress for the weather is one thing, but there was more to figuring out cold weather than just getting (and wearing) a coat.

"You wouldn't "take a shower, and then run out the front door and around the block... Water evaporating off of your body cools your skin. That's why you feel chilled when you step out of the shower or bath. There is always a thin layer of perspiration on your skin. The stronger the wind, the greater the evaporation of sweat off of your face, hands, and toes, and the colder you feel. A wind chill of -20° means that the wind is helping to move heat away from your body at the same rate as if it were -20° with no wind. For example, a snowmobiler moving along at sixty miles per hour on a calm day has a 'wind' of sixty miles an hour and needs to dress accordingly...."

It's no fun to be cold, but where does it cross the line from just being annoying to becoming a health risk?

"Frost Nip   The cold stops blood flow to your fingers, toes, ears and nose. These extremities begin to tingle and hurt.
"Frost Bite   This is more serious than frost nip. When frost bite setsin, the pain and tingling go away and tissue damage begins. Damage can be on the surface or deep within. See a doctor right away for treatment....
"Hypothermia   The most severe winter injury. Hypothermia victims are freezing to death and are either groggy or unconscious. Wrap the victim in blankets immediately, and get to a hospital."

A little more about frostbite...

"Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation....
"note: A  victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb."

And hypothermia...

"When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won't be able to do anything about it. Hypothermia occurs most commonly at very cold environmental temperatures, but can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water."

Visit the "extreme cold Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)" for more information...

..And some would say that this information is just a bit of what you need to know to exist in the snow and cold. What about traveling? Driving? Skiing? Sledding? Ice skating? Thin ice? Snow shoveling? More?

Questions of the Week:
What basic knowledge about safety in cold and snow should all people have no matter where they live? What about someone who lives in a place where cold weather is rarely, if ever, an issue? Why would someone in a warm climate need this information? How do you need to prepare and plan differently for snow versus severe cold and/or wind chill? What do you need to know if your time in the snow and/or cold involves basic daily activities? What if your day of winter weather involves more than just walking to school or the bus stop? Where can you find trustworthy information that will help you get safely through your day of cold or snow--whatever your situation?

Please share ideas and

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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