It's important to be aware of the early warning signs and symptoms of cold exposure and how to prevent the following problems:
Shivering – Shvering is usually the first sign of dangerous cold exposure. As the body is trying to generate its own heat you will develop uncontrolled muscle contraction. Shivering should be your first warning to seek shelter and warm up your core temperature.
Frostbite – Frostbite describes the freezing of superficial tissues of the face, ears, fingers and toes. Signs include pain, burning, numbness, tingling, skin turns hard and white, skin starts to peel or get blisters, skin starts to itch and skin gets firm, shiny and grayish-yellow. To help a frostbite victim, get the person to a warm, dry place and remove constrictive clothing. Raise affected areas and apply warm, moist compresses to these areas. Do not rub frostbitten areas or apply direct heat.
Hypothermia – Hypothermia is a more severe response to cold exposure that is defined as a significant drop in body core temperature. Signs include shivering, cold sensation, goose bumps, confusion, numbness, lack of coordination, sluggishness, difficulty speaking, stumbling, depression, muscle stiffness, slurred speech and trouble seeing, and unconsiousness. At the first sign of hypothermia take the person to a dry, warm place or warm the victim with blankets, extra dry clothing or your own body heat.
Follow these tips to protect yourself in the cold:
Stay hydrated – Dehydration affects your body's ability to regulate body heat and increases the risk of frostbite. Fluids, especially water, are as important in cold weather as in the heat. Avoid consuming alcohol or beverages containing caffeine, because these items are dehydrating.
Avoid alcohol – Alcohol dilates blood vessels and increases heat loss so the odds of experiencing a hypothermic event increase. Alcohol can also impair judgment to the extent that you may not make the best or brightest decisions in a cold weather emergency. It's best to leave the alcohol behind when you head out into the cold.
Layer clothing – Several thin layers are warmer than one heavy layer. Layers are also easier to add or remove and thus, better regulate your core temperature. The goal is to keep the body warm and minimize sweating and avoid shivering. It is thought that a combination of three layers is optimal to prevent heat loss. The innermost layer should consist of polyester fabric that wicks away moisture from the body. Cotton should be avoided since it absorbs sweat and could keep the body wet. The second layer can be thin or heavy depending on the climate and exercise. Usually fleece, down, wool, or synthetic fabrics make good second layers that can be put on or removed as needed. Finally, the outermost layer should be a windproof and waterproof shell. Nylon fabrics such as Gore-Tex and similar materials are sufficiently breathable but repel wind and water.
Avoid overdressing – Running and other forms of strenuous outdoor exercise can make the athlete feel as if it 20-30 warmer. Overdressing can lead to more sweating than the appropriate amount and layers would generate, and that sweating can cause the body to become wet and cold. In general, if dressed with appropriately, one should feel slightly cold when starting to exercise.
Stay dry – Wet, damp clothing, whether from perspiration or precipitation, significantly increases body-heat loss.
Protect the head and extremities – Layered clothing does a tremendous job at keeping the outdoor athlete warm. However, it is important to protect the head, hands and feet. To minimize the amount of heat lost, the body decreases blood flow to the hands and feet. Wearing gloves or mittens on the hands and a pair of warm, moisture-wicking socks on the feet will usually protect the extremities. Wearing a hat can decrease the large percentage of body heat that is normally lost from the head in cold weather.
Cover your mouth – To warm the air before you breathe it, use a scarf or mask. Do this especially if breathing cold air causes angina (chest pain) or you are prone to upper respiratory problems.
Sunglasses and sunscreen – Often snow and ice can reflect a tremendous amount of sunlight. One should wear sunglasses to protect eyes against the light and glare. Wearing sunscreen on the face and using lip balm with sunscreen to block ultraviolet rays and prevent sunburn is important in the winter, just as it is in the summer.
Shoes – To decrease the chance of slipping and suffering an injury, wearing appropriate shoes in snowy or slippery conditions is critical. Shoes with studs or prominent tread can help on trails or slick roads and sidewalks. Checking shoes for excessive wear and changing to newer shoes if the current ones are worn out is important as well.
Run into the wind – Running experts recommend that it is better to run into the wind at the beginning of a run. Sweat production increases as exercise continues. If the second half of a run is directed into a strong wind, the air flowing past a runner with clothes damp with sweat can feel extremely cold and cause a drop in body temperature. It is probably better to run into the wind at the onset when one has not started to sweat and have the wind at the back later in the run.
Nutrition – Proper nutrition helps regulate your core temperature, keeps your body warm and provides enough fuel for your working muscles. In warm weather it's easy to sweat to regulate your temperature and remove excess heat, but in cold weather you need to generate more heat to stay warm. When it comes to eating during cold weather exercise, warm foods that are complex carbohydrates are ideal. It's also important to eat continually to replace carbohydrate stores that are being used for exercise and warming.
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