Winter Weather - Wind Chill... Frostbite... Hypothermia

"Wind Chill" sounds like an artificial, fabricated term to make us feel better when we look at the thermometer and are convinced it feels colder outside than the mercury reads.  In fact, "wind chill" is the product of an objective approach by weather specialists that is not a "feels like" marketing gimmick, but an effort to help people understand when dangerous conditions are present that may be the precursors for frostbite or hypothermia.  It is expressed in familiar terms (i.e., numerical temperature readings) to help facilitate this understanding.  The number itself is derived from the heat loss rate of the human body relative to its surroundings and environment as altered by cold and wind.  Essentially, the "wind chill" Fahrenheit temperature represents the actual impact on your body's ability to retain heat when wind is factored in.  Pretty cool, eh?

As a general rule, the wind chill means that with the current/projected wind speed the temperature outside is going to be colder than the ambient temperature reading and intended to help you gauge risk.  Using the example from the National Weather Service statement, a temperature of -5 degrees occurring with a 20 mph wind means that your body will loose heat at the same rate as if the air temperature is -30 with no wind.  According to of partners with the National Weather Service, wind chill values near -25 degrees mean that frostbite is possible within 15 minutes.

Frostbite, too, is another term that sounds less than the physical reaction is represents.  Frostbite is nothing less than the freezing of your skin and - in extreme cases - your muscles, tendons, blood vessels and nerves.  Areas of your skin that are exposed and where there are less blood vessels to keep the skin warm and fluids moving are more subject to frostbite, such as your fingers, toes, nose and ears.  Remember, your body is primarily composed of water, right?  Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  As a result, the risk of frostbite starts when it is freezing or below freezing outside and is accelerated by additional factors such as wind - ergo, "wind chill" is a direct indication of the risk for frostbite.  Also cool, huh?

Not surprisingly, the best way to avoid frostbite is to be aware of weather conditions and dressing appropriately.  Treatment of frostbite is similarly unsurprising and includes rewarming of the affected area, generally be getting to a stable, warm environment or slowing warming through holding the affected area next to warm skin or wrapping the affected area in blankets or additional clothing.  All of these methods seem slow.... Why not rub, massage, shake or apply physical force to warm the affected area?  Because, the skin is frozen.  In certain cases, the fact that the tissue may contain ice crystals means that physical force such as described may cause further damage and pain.

Hypothermia, on the other hand, sounds about right for the condition.  Hypothermia is when the body's core temperature (normal 98 - 100 degrees) drops to a point where normal functioning is impaired.  Hypothermia can occur even when it is not freezing because your body is constantly involved in maintaining a core temperature of 98 degrees.  Meaning, even if it is above freezing, such as 50 degrees outside, but your body is fighting conditions such as ample food supply, cold or wet clothing or other variables, your core temperature can dip below the Goldilocks region of 98 degrees, causing hypothermia.  Consequently, hypothermia is the most common winter killer.

Complicating one's ability to fight off hypothermia is that many of the initial warning signs that hypothermia is occurring is a reduction in cognitive functions, such as memory loss, disorientation, slurred speed and drowsiness.  Uncontrollable shivering may also take place as the body tries on its own to produce heat through movement.  Like frostbite, the best way to meet the challenge of hypothermia is through prevention, including understanding weather conditions, eating/hydrating properly and wearing appropriate clothing for conditions.  It is also important that, if you are outside with others such as hiking, climbing or hunting, that your group are educated on and familiar with the signs of hypothermia.  Unlike frostbite where you know your fingers are cold and have the competency to do something about it, hypothermia may not enable you to think clearly or articulate properly to others that you need help.

Hypothermia treatment includes, again unsurprisingly, warming the person in a stable, warm environment using blankets, dry clothing/skin contact and warm liquids.

So, this winter - Stay Dry. Stay Covered. Dress in layers. Stay Informed. And, Stay Alive!