The ambient temperature in Lawton dropped as low as -12 degrees early Tuesday morning, with wind chills as low as -20 according to the National Weather Service. It has been over 30 years since Lawton saw this kind of frigid cold. And for many residents, this is their first time ever experiencing winter weather this dangerous.
Without proper preparation and care, such bitingly cold temps can lead to frostbite, hypothermia and even death. Dr. Kristin Broughton, with Lawton Community Health Center, and Dr. James Petersen, with Duncan Regional Hospital, provided some tips for Southwest Oklahoma residents as they struggle with the winter weather.
4 biggest dangers
Some of the biggest dangers residents might face during this cold snap are frostbite, hypothermia, falls and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Frostbite is damage to the skin that occurs under prolonged exposure to extremely cold temperatures. The most common areas affected are ears, nose, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. Some signs of impending frostbite are numbness, a change in color from red to white, hardness and trouble moving appendages.
“As it progresses you will get blisters and days later the area turns black,” Broughton said. “Frostbite is a little more common than the others if you are out there for any length of time uncovered. It depends on the ambient temperature and the wind chill, you can’t just say someone outside for 15 minutes will get frostbite, it depends a lot on other factors.”
Anyone venturing outside in the cold should make sure they are wearing appropriate clothing, including layers, and should take extra care to cover up those extremities most prone to frostbite.
“One of the things people do that they shouldn’t is put their hands or feet in hot water. The problem with that is they are numb if they’re borderline frostbitten, so they won’t be able to know how hot the water is. So having someone help you determine the temperature and putting them into warm water is OK, but not hot water,” Broughton said.
Anyone showing the signs of frostbite should immediately move in doors and remove any wet clothing. If frostbite occurs on the hands or feet, try to refrain from rubbing or massaging the area as this can cause further damage to the skin, instead use blankets and ambient heat to warm the extremities.
Hypothermia is another danger of exposure to the cold. The body’s immediate reaction to cold temperatures is shivering; this is a reaction meant to regulate body temperature at 95 degrees. However, prolonged exposure may drop the body temperature low enough that shivering stops and hypothermia begins to set in.
“Symptoms of hypothermia include clumsiness, trouble speaking, confusion, feeling very tired, breathing faster than normal and urinating more than normal,” Broughton said. “The first thing to do is move to a warmer place, preferably inside, take off any wet clothing and cover up with blankets. If the person is able to consumer fluid, get them a warm drink.”
While a person may not know that they are suffering from hypothermia, if any of those symptoms begin to manifest, Broughton suggests seeking medical care immediately by going to the hospital or calling 911.
“Another thing people don’t realize is that, just like with heat-related injuries, if you get a cold-related injury once you’re more likely to get it a second time. So the next time you go outside take extra precaution, make sure you are hydrated, that you’ve eaten and that you avoid alcohol,” Broughton said.
Falling is another injury that often brings people into the hospital during cold weather, according to Dr. James Petersen. Oftentimes people will wait too long after a fall to seek medical attention, he added.
“In terms of falls we see that a lot of them happen when people get out with their pets or animals or go out to check the mail that kind of stuff. They will slip and break a hip or injure themselves. Prevention is really the best care. Make sure your walkways are cleared and that you have good footing because a lot of times you can’t tell if it is icy or not. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to get in and out to do as much as you can to prevent these injuries,” Petersen said.
If a fall does occur, delaying medical attention could exacerbate any problems resulting from the fall and Petersen recommends not waiting to see a doctor if a fall is sustained.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Finally, an injury that most don’t associate with cold weather, but one both doctors said is common during extreme winter storms, is carbon monoxide poisoning.
“A lot of people will try and heat their homes as best they can and sometimes that involves combustion. I recommend everybody read the appropriate ventilations settings on any heaters to make sure they will ventilate well,” Petersen said.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause nausea, headache, fatigue and even death. The best treatment, as with any injury or sickness, is prevention.
“Obviously having a carbon monoxide detector in the home is very important, but don’t burn kerosene heaters or camp stoves inside, inhaling that for any length of time can cause you to pass out and that’s when people die,” Broughton said. “If you suspect you have been exposed to carbon monoxide, immediately move to fresh air and call 911.”