(CNN) — When winter storms force us to prepare for freezing rain, wind, sleet and snow, lives can be at risk.
The development of a “bomb cyclone” led to the issuance of watches for tens of millions of people from Washington state to Maryland, according to the National Weather Service.
The storm will affect much of the country, but the most severe effects will come from a blizzard in the Midwest on Thursday and Friday.
The National Weather Service also warns that wind chills in the Midwest can be life-threatening, with temperatures ranging from 115 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. About 40 million people are under wind chill watch as far south as Alabama and Texas.
Babies and the elderly are most at risk of cold-related illnesses or injuries because they lose body heat more easily and older people tend to produce less body heat.
But there are steps you can take to protect yourself and others in extreme cold.
Tips for being safe indoors
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers the following tips for staying indoors during cold temperatures or a winter storm:
- Make sure that children under one year old do not sleep in cold rooms and that they wear appropriate warm clothing, such as onesies, one-piece blankets or sleeping bags. Remove all pillows or other soft bedding from the crib, as they pose a risk of suffocation or sudden infant death syndrome.
- If you have friends or neighbors over 65, visit them often to make sure their home is adequately heated.
- Leave the water taps slightly open to prevent the pipes from freezing.
- Eat balanced foods to stay warm.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they can accelerate your body’s heat loss.
“Never use generators, gas or charcoal grills, camp stoves, or similar devices inside your home, in basements, garages, or near windows,” the CDC states. . “Fumes are deadly.”
Using stove for warmth is unsafe, CDC warns; instead, use extra blankets, sleeping bags, or coats. A working fireplace or heater can be a safe alternative.
Tips for staying safe outdoors
The CDC and National Weather Service offer a few recommendations for venturing outdoors during a winter storm:
- Bundle up in hats, scarves, and gloves and wear multiple layers of clothing.
- Avoid walking on ice and avoid getting wet.
- If you must shovel snow or do other outdoor work, take your time and work slowly. If you have older neighbors, offer to help clear their driveway.
- If possible, avoid driving on icy roads.
- If you are stranded outside, it is safer to stay in your vehicle.
- Try to keep your pets indoors when it’s cold, but if they go outside, clean their paws well and clear their lower abdomens when they come inside. Never leave your dog off-leash on snow or ice.
What happens to the body with the cold?
Many of us feel cold winter temperatures on our fingers and toes before any other part of our body.
It happens because the body works to protect vital organs from the cold, Dr. Suzanne Salamon, deputy chief of clinical programs at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told CNN.
“Blood vessels in all parts of the body will constrict,” he said. “They’re going to get smaller to try to stay warm.”
“What the body tries with all its might is to protect the most important, deepest organs: the heart, the brain and the lungs,” he explains. “The body tries to keep them warm by redirecting the heat from the fingers and toes inwards, so the blood vessels in the fingers become very small and not enough blood passes through them. “
It’s important for the body to do this – and to do it quickly – because winter weather has been linked to health risks related to heart attacks, asthma symptoms, frostbite and hypothermia.
Worldwide, cold tends to cause more heat-attributable deaths than heat, according to a 2015 study published in The Lancet.
A “freezing” risk for the heart
The cold can affect the heart, especially if you have cardiovascular disease. “You always hear about people going out to shovel snow and having a heart attack,” says Salamon.
The cold can narrow your blood vessels, which can put pressure on your heart.
“Shoveling snow is an example of how people with heart disease or risk factors for heart disease push themselves harder than they otherwise would. Shoveling is hard work; people with heart disease and back problems are at increased risk of injury or illness while shoveling. Dr. Reed Caldwell, associate professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Emergency Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center and an emergency department physician, previously told CNN.
In a study published in the BMJ in 2010, a single degree Celsius reduction in temperature was associated with a 2% cumulative increase in the risk of suffering a myocardial infarction.
The study included data from 84,010 hospital admissions for heart attacks in England and Wales between 2003 and 2006. The researchers analyzed the data to determine any possible relationship between outdoor temperatures and heart attacks.
However, the heart is not the only part of the body that can become more vulnerable to health problems in the winter.
How to deal with asthma in winter
The cold can wreak havoc on the lungs, as dry air can irritate the airways, especially in people with lung conditions like asthma, according to the American Lung Association.
“Cold air causes bronchospasm, so people with asthma and COPD may experience increased symptoms during the winter months,” says Caldwell.
If you have asthma and you’re in the cold, “put a scarf around your nose. That definitely helps, because then you’re breathing in your own vapor through your mouth,” Salamon said.
On the other hand, a more well-known cold-related health problem is frostbite.
Frost: a danger even for the eyes
Frostbite can occur in sub-zero temperatures when blood vessels constrict, skin temperature drops, and ice crystals form around and inside cells, causing damage.
“There are a number of cold-related injuries to the skin. The first is called ‘mild cold burn’ and involves the cooling of the outermost skin tissue without actual tissue destruction. This is known to occur because the skin can discolor, sometimes a deep red, and it can feel irritated and very sensitive, which is a good warning sign that the skin is getting too cold,” says Caldwell.
“Then severe frostbite or cold burn involves actual destruction of the skin, and the frostbitten skin often appears pale, waxy, and may sometimes even turn purple or black as the tissue begins to die. The frostbitten skin may be numb or not be hurt,” he said. Explain.
According to Salamon, frostbite can even affect the eyes. “When you’re outside and it’s very windy, you can freeze your eyes, which is very dangerous,” he explains.
“The cold starts to form small blisters in the eyes or small crystals on the skin, which can roll over and damage the skin or the eye itself,” he explains. “These blood vessels constrict a lot, so little blood gets through, which reduces circulation to the eyes.”
Blood vessels constrict to prevent hypothermia, a dangerous condition that occurs when the body loses more heat than it produces, causing the core temperature to drop below 35°C.
“The most concerning effect of exposure to cold is hypothermia, which can damage vital organs such as the heart, nervous system and kidneys. In extreme cases, death can result. often the result of an abnormal heart rhythm,” he previously said. Dr. Jeahan Colletti, an emergency medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told CNN.
Those most at risk of hypothermia — and any cold-related health risks — tend to be older people, Salamon said.
“If people have a neighbor who is an elderly person, when it’s really cold they should watch them. When people are very, very cold, they can get very confused and not know enough to ask for help. .” , said.
More tips for staying warm and healthy
What else can people do to stay warm and healthy this winter? An important measure to reduce risk is what we wear.
“It’s very important to dress in layers, so… wear more than one pair of gloves and a top with a mitten, because the air trapped between those layers helps keep you warm,” says Salamon.
“Tight clothing is not good because you don’t benefit from layering. Wear looser sweaters, shawls if you’re sitting in an enclosed space, to try and keep warm. It helps to wear a balaclava to protect your ears and nose,” Explain. “If you get wet, for example when playing in the snow or shoveling snow, take off your wet clothes, because it makes things worse. It makes things colder. Boots should be waterproof.”
Preventive measures include not only putting on appropriate clothing for the cold, but also avoiding drinking too many cocktails in cold weather, says Colletti of the Mayo Clinic.
“Avoid drinking alcohol in cold weather, as mental awareness is impaired, which limits the ability to recognize symptoms of significant cold exposure. Alcohol also causes blood vessels in the body to dilate, which which increases heat loss,” he said.
— Dave Hennen and Jamie Gumbrecht contributed reporting.