Harsh Canadian winters can bring more than just a big dump of snow.
December has already had a large chunk of Canada experiencing extreme cold, so much so that one spot earned the title of the coldest place on Earth.
With Canadians experiencing temperatures as low as -41ºC, it’s the prime environment for frostbite and hypothermia to occur.
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Before you head out into the cold, here are signs of frostbite and hypothermia you might not recognize and the best ways to protect yourself from extreme cold conditions.
According to Health Canada, you’re at risk of getting frostbite when your body is exposed to temperatures below 0ºC for a long period of time.
“Blood flow to your hands, feet, nose, and ears can be severely restricted,” explains the government agency. “The combination of poor circulation and extreme cold can lead to frostbite.”
It usually occurs in body parts farthest from the heart, including hands, feet, nose, ears, cheeks and chin.
There are three stages of frostbite: frostnip (mildest stage), superficial frostbite, and deep or severe frostbite, according to Mayo Clinic.
Be aware of the following symptoms that are signs of frostbite:
In the early stages, your skin may turn pale yellow or white and could sting, itch, burn or feel numb and prickly after being warmed up.
The next stage will make your skin hard and look shiny or waxy. Blisters filled with fluid may form 12 to 36 hours after rewarming the skin.
Severe frostbite is very hard and cold to the touch. Your skin will turn white or blue-gray, and you’ll lose any sensation in the area.
As the nerve damage occurs, the frostbitten joints and muscles may stop working. That area will turn black once the layers in the tissue of the skin dies.
The worst-case scenario is when your skin is broken and becomes infected, causing gangrene, which can result in the loss of limbs.
According to Mayo Clinic, you should seek medical attention for frostbite if you experience a fever and increased pain, swelling, inflammation, or discharge in the frostbitten area.
Health Canada says there are three different stages of hypothermia.
In the first stage, your body temperature drops by 1 or 2ºC. At this point, you’ll begin shivering and getting goosebumps on your skin. Your hands will go numb, and your breath can become shallow. You could also feel tired or sick to your stomach (or both!).
Once you feel a warm sensation, the agency says that means your body is entering stage two. Your body temperature drops by 2 to 4ºC, and the shivering intensifies. It may feel hard and slow to move your body. You could also experience mild confusion, become pale, and your lips, ears, fingers, and toes could turn blue.
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An easy way to check if you’re in the second stage of hypothermia is to try touching your thumb to your pinky.
“If you can’t, your muscles are not working properly, and you’re experiencing stage 2 hypothermia,” states Health Canada.
In the final stage, your body temperature drops below 32ºC. The shivering will cease, and you’ll have a hard time moving your muscles. Your behaviour may become irrational as you have a hard time speaking, thinking, and walking, and you could even develop amnesia. Any exposed skin will become blue and puffy.
According to the agency, this third stage could lead to death if you don’t receive immediate medical attention.
How to reduce your risk of getting frostbite or hypothermia
Thankfully there are steps you can take to protect yourself from the extreme cold.
Health Canada advises people to wear synthetic and wool fabrics to provide better insulation.
Dressing in layers with a wind-resistant outer layer and wearing warm socks, gloves, hats, and scarves also help.
“If you get wet, change into dry clothing as soon as possible. You lose heat faster when you’re wet,” explains the agency.
Besides having a warm fit, it also recommends people constantly move to keep their blood flowing so that it maintains their body heat.
And unfortunately, taking a shot of tequila before you head outside will do the opposite of warming you up. Health Canada says it can cause hypothermia because it increases blood flow to the body’s extremities.
Last but certainly not least, always check if there are any extreme weather and frostbite warnings in your area.