8 ways freezing temperatures can affect your body

  • The 2019 polar vortex is upon us, with life-threatening temperatures.
  • The extreme cold can have an effect on your health in many ways.
  • Here are things to watch out for during periods of extreme cold.

With the Midwest and Great Lakes regions in the midst of a life-threatening polar vortex, it’s helpful to understand how extreme cold environments affect the human body.

This week, some US cities are experiencing record-breaking, low temperatures that are colder than most parts of Antarctica. And unfortunately, these weather systems might be getting more common.

This kind of severe winter weather can cause some serious health effects. Here are eight ways the freezing temperatures can affect your body.

First, you could experience frostnip, followed by frostbite.

Frostbite is a dire condition in which your skin and tissues freeze after being exposed to extreme cold for a prolonged amount of time, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. Frostbite, which most commonly occurs on your fingers, toes, ears, and nose, can lead to severe and permanent blood vessel and tissue damage.

Luckily for most people, the chances of reaching that point are rare, and frostnip provides us with early warning signals before it gets that far. Frostnip is milder than frostbite and its symptoms include red, tingling or numb skin. If you begin to see or feel any of those signs, it is best to get yourself inside and away from the cold.

Prolonged exposure to extreme cold can lead to hypothermia.

A person crosses the street in New York City during the polar vortex. Getty Images/John Moore

Hypothermia takes place when a person’s body loses heat at a rate quicker than it can produce it and their body temperature drops extremely low, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Low body temperature can cause your heart, nervous system, and other organs to enter a state of shock, putting a person at risk of a heart attack, respiratory system failure and possibly death.

Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, slow breathing, lack of coordination and confusion. Elderly adults and young children are especially at risk.

Windburn can make your cheeks look red.

Windburn occurs when your skin loses its natural oils due to its exposure to cold temperatures and low humidity in the air, Dr. Diane Meyer, a dermatologist at Marshfield Clinic Health System, told INSIDER.

Windburn usually gives your cheeks a flushed appearance and makes your skin red, dry and itchy. Sometimes it may cause your skin to swell and heat up.

To prevent windburn, cover your skin, including your face and hands as much as possible and consider wearing sunglasses or goggles if you’re doing any outdoor activities on cold, windy days.

Cold weather can cause your nose to run.

A runny nose is one of the ways your body protects you from the cold. As part of the respiratory tract, your nose plays a key role in warming, humidifying and cleaning the air you breathe before it makes its way to your lungs.

When your nose is hit with cold, dry air, it increases mucus production as an automatic defence mechanism to ensure ideal, humid conditions inside the nose, according to The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Shivering helps your body to generate heat to keep you warm.

Shivering warms up your body. Getty Images/Andrew Burton

Similar to a runny nose, shivering is another defence mechanism used by your body to keep the cold air from wreaking havoc. The quick muscular contractions are one way your body can generate heat to stop your body temperature from dropping dramatically, according to Harvard Medical Center.

Freezing temperatures can increase your risk of a heart attack.

When you put yourself in extremely cold environments, your heart has to work harder to circulate your blood.

When you’re outside shoveling snow, the cold air can cause oxygen to unevenly distribute to various areas of your heart. In 2012, a team of Penn State researchers found that a healthy individual’s body can usually adapt to this and redistribute the blood flow. But for those with an existing heart condition, oxygen supply may become severely impaired and lead to a heart attack, they found.

Cold air can cause wheezing and shortness of breath.

Cold air can go into your lungs. Lauren Justice for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Cold air, which is typically very dry as well, can irritate your lungs and cause wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath, according to the American Lung Association. This is especially true for people with asthma, COPD, or bronchitis.

To protect yourself against any potential damage to your airways, experts recommend covering your nose and mouth with a scarf when going out into severe cold temperatures and avoiding outdoor exercises.

The cold air dries out your skin.

Dealing with the extreme cold while you’re outside for a few minutes is one thing, but when you’re constantly reminded about it with itchy, dry skin that’s a whole different story.

During the winter months, when the air is at its coldest and driest, your skin is the most susceptible to drying out. As humidity levels drop, ensuring your skin stays hydrated is a difficult task.

In order to limit dryness, the American Skin Association recommends you regularly apply moisturizing creams, use a mild non-soap skin cleanser, always wear gloves and avoid rubbing or scratching the skin.

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