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Extreme Cold

Residents of Northwestern Ontario are familiar with cold winters and, occasionally during the winter months, our region can experience extreme cold weather events. During these periods, extra caution must be taken to prevent hypothermia and cold injuries to the exposed skin.

Extreme cold can be made much worse if there is wind as it will decrease the time needed for cold related injuries to occur.

Wind chill values Time needed for exposed skin to freeze
-28°C to -39°C  10 to 30 minutes
-40°C to -47°C 5 to 10 minutes
-48°C to -54°C 2 to 5 minutes
People at increased risk of cold-related illness
Populations at increased risk of injury from extreme cold include:
  • Elderly
  • Infants and young children
  • Those with chronic conditions (e.g. heart diseases, respiratory diseases or asthma)
  • Those who are wet
  • Outdoor workers
  • Sport enthusiasts (hikers, skiers)
  • Homeless persons and those lacking shelter, proper clothing, or food
  • Those with underlying infections or physical disabilities
How to avoid cold-related illness
You can avoid cold-related illness by:
  • Checking the Environment Canada weather forecast for your region before going outside
  • Planning ahead to reorganize activities (i.e. sporting events, recess, etc.) if it is too cold
  • Dressing warmly in layers. Wear a wind resistant jacket with a hat, scarf, neck tube or face mask. Wear warm and waterproof footwear.
  • When the wind chill is significant, getting out of the wind and limiting the time you are outside
  • Staying dry. Remove wet clothing if possible or remove outer layers.
  • Keeping active. Walking or running will help generate body heat, but try to avoid sweating.
  • Watching for signs of frost-bite and hypothermia (listed below), especially if you work with or care for populations at higher risk.
Cold-related illnesses
The effects of exposure to extreme cold can be divided into two main categories:

Frostbite is a condition where the freezing of skin and underlying tissues occurs. The frozen tissue dies because there is a lack of oxygen. Frostbite mostly affects the extremities, such as the nose, ears, fingers and toes. This is because these body parts are normally exposed to the cold more often and they do not have major muscles to help produce heat. Sometimes the damage is so severe that an amputation of the affected body part may be necessary.

Signs and symptoms:
  • Pale, gray, waxy skin that is cold to the touch
  • Swelling and blistering of the skin
  • Numbness and localized pain on the affected area
  • Dress in layers of warm clothing
  • Ensure that extremities are covered up with a hat, mittens or insulated gloves, scarf, neck warmer or face mask and insulated footwear
  • Cover all exposed skin
How to help someone with frostbite:
  1. Get medical attention as soon as possible
  2. At first sign of pain or redness on the skin, get out of the cold or cover up the exposed skin
  3. Get into a warm space and remove any wet clothing
  4. Do not rub or massage the affected area
  5. Warm the area gradually – use body heat (under armpit) or warm water (40-42oC)
  6. Do not use direct heat on the area as it can burn the skin (heating pad, water bottle, etc.). Wrap a towel around these objects before contact with the skin
  7. Do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes unless absolutely necessary

Hypothermia is a condition where the core body temperature drops to below 35oC due to exposure to cold temperatures or cold water. As the body loses heat, internal organs begin to shut down and the heart can stop, which may lead to death.

Signs and symptoms:
  • Shivering, slurred speech, lack of coordination, weakness
  • Drowsiness or low energy
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Confusion
  • Pale skin colour
  • Dress in layers of warm clothing
  • Stay dry
  • Keep active
  • Reduce time of outdoor activities
How to help someone with hypothermia:
  1. Get medical attention as soon as possible.
  2. Get into a warm space and remove any wet clothing
  3. Warm the center of the body first (head, neck, chest, groin)
  4. Use skin-to-skin contact blankets, towels, wrapped hot water bottles, heating pads to warm the person
  5. Give warm drinks if the person is awake (no alcoholic beverages)
Cold-related injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia are medical emergencies. Call 911 immediately if you are caring for someone who has been exposed to cold temperatures and shows any of the above signs and symptoms.