As the winter weather continues to roll in, many of us are grasping for ways to keep the cold out of our homes and away from our bodies, and for good reason. Prolonged exposure to the cold and winter elements can create short- and long-term health issues, depending on the situation.
Dr. Ron Hayden, chairman for the past 15 years of the Berkshire Medical Center Emergency Department in Pittsfield, Mass., said his staff often see the worst cases of cold exposure, from frostbite to hypothermia to delusion and disorientation.
"The whole human body response to cold exposure is to keep the vital organs warm — keep the heart warm, keep the kidneys warm, keep the brain warm," he said.
Which is why the most typical cold exposure injuries affect the extremities, like fingers, toes, nose and ears. "Not only are they more exposed, but your body is shutting down circulation to those areas to protect the organs," Hayden said.
If you're heading outdoors or looking to keep warm this winter, keeping your head, hands, feet and core warm are crucial to supporting circulation and protecting prone areas of the body.
Paul Nadeau is a senior adviser based at the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Sam's Outdoor Outfitters; the company also has stores in North Swanzey, N.H., and Hadley, Mass. He said well-built winter clothing and gear is designed to help people keep warm while being functional enough to do outdoor work or allow people to enjoy outdoor recreation.
For winter coats and jackets, he said, "Each brand will have their own little story of what kind of materials they use, but it all boils down to a waterproof or water-resistent outside with a good fill inside." Nadeau said down-filled coats tend to be the warmest. He also said outerwear known as system jackets, which allow the wearer to zip off or zip on components for more are less warmth, are becoming popular for their versatility.
Nadeau said a good thick, dense fiber sock will help keep feet warm, which is why merino wool, SmartWool and a Vermont product, known as Darn Tough socks, are popular items. Boots with waterproof rubber soles or footing, and felt pack inserts will also help keep feet dry and toasty.
As for gloves and mittens, dense knits and water-resistent materials will prove helpful in protecting and keeping your hands warm. Keeping an extra pair of socks and gloves handy in your car, at work or outdoor pack is never a bad idea in the winter, in case you get stuck in the snow or slosh through some slush.
Hand warming and foot warming packets are also handy. They work by a chemical reaction, sort of like a reverse ice pack, when activated.
"We sell thousands of foot warmers, hand warmers and toe warmers and they really work," Nadeau said.
By the way, the next time your mother or someone else tells you to wear a hat, listen. Hat-hair aside, Dr. Hayden said it's actually practical advice. "The head in itself receives about 40 percent of the blood flow to support brain function," he said.
Nadeau said hats come in all sorts of colors, shapes and styles, and that the big furry-looking hats known as "trooper hats" add extra protection with ear flaps and a front that covers the forehead.
Hayden said people who sustain prolonged exposure to the cold can suffer from confusion and disorientation.
"When the temperature of the head and brain decline, the brain starts to dysfunction and not respond properly," he said. "We've seen patients who were found out in the cold with their clothes off because they were so delusional."
The physician said mindful, common-sense preparations can go a long way in preventing cold-exposure injuries and adverse reactions.
"People should know their medical history. For example, diabetics are more prone to vascular injuries, so that should factor into the way you're dressed and layered," Hayden said.
If you go out hiking, snowshoeing, or to do another outdoor sport, he said to be sure to have a charged cell phone with you; to dress appropriately; and to let a friend or family member know where you're going and when you expect to return, so that in case of an emergency or accident, you'll be warm and people will be able to find you.
And for those who think it's a good idea to combine a cold beer or other kinds of alcohol while outdoors on a cold day, Dr. Hayden said you may be putting yourself more at risk. "Consuming alcohol complicates things. People who are having a cold beverage out there while exposed to the cold are definitely decreasing their brain capacity," he said.
Should you find yourself in an emergency situation and need to warm up, Hayden said to approach the process carefully, and to seek professional medical attention as needed.
For example, if your heat goes out, be careful burning non-wood materials or overloading circuits with space heaters, which can make an environment more prone to a house fire.
And don't go running your hands under very hot water. "This could make you susceptible to burns," the doctor said.
Instead, Hayden recommends what hospitals term as "passive warming." "We have warming blankets, pillows and air mattresses we use with patients. Using hats, gloves, taking in warm tea and warm soups are all helpful."
"Be sensible. If the temperature is 0 degrees with a minus 40 windchill, if you don't need to go out and do whatever it is, don't do it," he said. "When it's this cold, we always say to just watch out for your friends and neighbors, too."