Cold Temperature Exposure
It's easy to get cold quickly if you are outside in Reference wet, windy, or cold weather. Cold temperature exposure can also happen if you spend time in a dwelling or other building that is not well heated during cold weather.
Injuries from cold exposure
- "Frostnip" usually affects skin on the face, ears, or fingertips. Frostnip may cause numbness or blue-white skin color for a short time, but normal feeling and color return quickly when you get warm. No permanent tissue damage occurs.
- Reference Frostbite Opens New Window is freezing of the skin and the tissues under the skin because of temperatures below freezing. Reference Frostbitten skin Opens New Window Reference Opens New Window looks pale or blue and feels cold, numb, and stiff or rubbery to the touch.
- Cold injuries, such as Reference trench foot Opens New Window or Reference chilblains, may cause pale and blistered skin like frostbite after the skin has warmed. These injuries occur from spending too much time in cold, but not freezing, temperatures. The skin does not actually freeze.
- Reference Eye pain or vision changes may occur in high winds, cold weather, or outdoor activities
- An abnormally low body temperature (Reference hypothermia) occurs when the Reference body loses heat faster than it can make heat. (There may be other reasons a person has a low body temperature. For more information, see the topic Reference Body Temperature.) Early symptoms of hypothermia include shivering in adults and older children; clumsy movements; apathy (lack of concern); poor judgment; and cold, pale, or blue-gray skin. Hypothermia is an emergency condition—it can quickly lead to unconsciousness and death if the heat loss is not stopped.
Risk factors for cold exposure injury
There are many factors that increase your risk of injury from exposure to cold temperatures.
- Being a Reference baby
- Being an Reference older adult
- Reference Drinking alcohol
- Being in Reference outdoor conditions, such as high altitudes or windy, wet weather, or being immersed in cold water
- Not being Reference dressed properly, having wet skin, or wearing wet clothing
- Being tired or Reference dehydrated Opens New Window
- Being exposed to cold temperatures in your workplace, such as working in cold-storage units
- Having certain Reference health risks
Many people get cold hands or feet, which often are bothersome but not a serious health problem. You are more likely to feel cold easily if you:
- Do not have much body fat. Fat under the skin helps keep you warm. People who have low body fat may be more likely to get hypothermia. Babies, older or ill adults, or malnourished people have low body fat.
- Smoke cigarettes or drink caffeine. Nicotine (from tobacco) and caffeine cause narrowing of the blood vessels in the hands and feet. When blood vessels are narrowed, less blood flows to these areas, causing the hands and feet to feel cold.
- Are under a lot of stress or feel tired. Chronic stress or anxiety can cause your nervous system to release adrenaline, which acts to narrow the blood vessels that supply blood to the hands and feet.
- Have a medical condition, such as Reference hypothyroidism Opens New Window or Reference Raynaud's phenomenon Opens New Window, that makes you feel or react more strongly to cold temperatures.
If you have already been exposed to the cold, Reference first aid measures can warm you up and may even save your life.
Reference Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
|By:||Reference Healthwise Staff||Last Revised: Reference May 11, 2011|
|Medical Review:||Reference William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Reference H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine