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Protecting Yourself From 4 Horrible Consequences of Extreme Cold

It's bad enough when core temperatures reach down to bone-chilling temperature, but when wind-chill comes into the picture, it can be devastating for the human body if left unprotected. Here are five terrible things extreme cold does to a human being.

1) Your Corneas May Freeze

If you spend a lot of time outside in that hellish cold combined with warmth-sapping winds, surely you must wonder: Could your eyeballs actually freeze?

In short exposures, no. This piece in the New York Daily News on outdoor running in cold weather notes your eyes will tear up, reducing the freezing point, and regular blinking will keep your peepers in working order.

It's a whole other story if you're a skier or snowmobiler, or anyone who has to spend a lot of time outdoors with the wind blowing in their face, and you forget to pack goggles.


Princeton University says forcing your eyes open in strong winds and extreme cold with no protection from extreme cold can, in fact, cause your cornea to freeze.

This actually causes people to drop out of grueling cross-country Arctic races like Alaska's Iditarod, and even when re-warming the area (which this article says can be done with a compress or warm hand), you still have to deal with momentary blurred vision. It's even possible for contact lenses to freeze to the eyeballs.

The eyes are usually thawed by the time the victim gets to a physician, and any damage can usually heal in days or weeks, but severe cases could result in tissue loss requiring restorative surgery.

- Remember your goggles, outdoor enthusiasts.
- Shelter your eyes at all times in temperatures -40 or lower (including wind chill)
- Refrain from keeping exposed eyes open for longer than 5 seconds in temperatures -22 or lower (including wind chill)

2) Your Skin, Muscles and Tissue Can Freeze Solid (WARNING: Graphic content)

At least your eyes can't freeze solid.

But your extremities -- feet, fingers, toes -- absolutely can freeze that thoroughly, to the point of actually falling off your body, or else needing to be amputated.
Human toes, 12 days post-frostbite.jpg
"Human toes, 12 days post-frostbite" by Dr. S. Falz - Collegue. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikmiedia Commons.

Welcome to the wonderful world of frostbite. Unlike its cousin, frostnip, which only freezes the skin and feels like its burning or tingling, frostbite can freeze not just the skin, but muscles, tissues and fat beneath it.

You're especially at risk of this if you're not wearing proper gear, and the wind chill is particularly stiff.

When wind chill values reach lower than -40, your skin can freeze within minutes.

And the longer you're exposed, the more likely it is that the damage becomes widespread, to the point of possibly requiring amputation, even if you do manage to find medical attention.

It's not just humans, either. Despite their furry coats, your pets' extremities are also at risk, like this stray cat who had to have its ears removed after being rescued.

And that's just the extremities. When the extreme cold reaches your core, that's when the risk of death starts setting in.

- At temperatures -40 or lower (including wind chill) it is absolutely imperative to keep extremities in the warmest possible clothing. This includes, layer methods using base core, mid and outer layers of insulation. At this temperature, the outer layers should be windproof without exception if duration of exposure exceeds 15 minutes. Wool mix or synthetics, woolen sweater, fleece or down sweater and /or jacket is preferable for mid layer and base core thermal layers should be comfortable cotton or merino wool.

3) Your Body Can Begin Shutting Down

When authorities issue extreme cold warnings or alerts, they're meant to be taken seriously. If you're not dressed properly or you've no shelter, extreme cold can kill.

Cold weather snaps can trigger heart attacks, particularly in people suffering from high blood pressure.

On average Canada is much colder than the United States in the winter and more than 80 people die from extreme cold, according to Environment Canada.

The human body is geared to maintain a core temperature of 37C/98.6F exactly. Any deviation from that causes serious problems, and when the body temperature begins to drop, that's when hypothermia sets in.

Even a drop as little as 0.6C/1F can trigger the process, marked by shivering, tiredness, fast breathing and other symptoms.

Below the 32C/89.6 mark, characterized as moderate hypothermia, sufferers might actually begin to act like they are intoxicated, with poor coordination, slurred speech, visible confusion and declining judgement. Their breathing starts to slow also, a process called hypoventilation.

They may also stop shivering. That is a very bad sign, and in their mental state, they may not even realize their body temperature is at life-threatening levels.

And when the body temperature falls below the severe level 28C/82.4, at least nine degrees below optimal, that's when the greatest risk of death comes.

In fact onlookers may think the victim is dead already. At about that point, they'll lose consciousness, their breathing will become too shallow to detect, if it doesn't stop altogether, their pulse will be weak, irregular or absent, and their pupils will be dilated.

Britain's NHS says people in that severe hypothermic state may be resuscitated if rushed to medical care in time, but severe hypothermia is often fatal.

- At cold temperature in the freezing range, it's important to recognize symptoms before your condition gets worse. Before it reaches that point, remember where we said moderate hypothermia symptoms include confusion and loss of reason? That can take some bizarre (and sinister) forms. If you can't feel your fingers anymore, it time to get somewhere warm quickly.

The next state of hypothermia is far too advanced to rationally initiate any prevention techniques. For this reason it's important to tackle the problem before it begins affecting the central nervous system and logical thought processes.

4) You're So Confused You Start Undressing

It's not common, but it happens: People who have been found after dying of hypothermia seem to have doffed their clothes in their final throes. This climbing website tells of stories where whole groups have been found dead on the mountainside naked, with the clothes folded neatly nearby.

There's even a word for it: 'Paradoxical undressing.'

German scientists at Freie Universitat Berlin looked at 69 hypothermia deaths from 1978 to 1994. They found about 25 per cent of the victims had taken their clothes off before death.

Remember when we said, up above, that hypothermia impairs judgement? What happens at later stages is that the blood-rate slows and blood vessels are dilated, making the victims, in their addled state, feel like they were burning up, when in fact they were losing heat faster than ever. So off came the clothes, and their fate was sealed.

LiveScience notes the phenomenon has often led to police mistaking hypothermia victims as having suffered some kind of assault.

If that wasn't weird enough, the scientists from that study noted most victims who'd done this also displayed what they called "terminal burrowing behaviour." Basically, with the last of their strength, they'd try their hardest to protect their bodies as much as possible burrowing into the snow, hiding under beds or cramming themselves into closets.

"This is obviously an autonomous process of the brain stem, which is triggered in the final state of hypothermia and produces a primitive and burrowing-like behaviour of protection, as seen in (hibernating) animals," the scientists wrote in 1995.

By the time these weird patterns start happening, it's probably too late for the victims of hypothermia. But if they do die from their condition, and no one finds them, the extreme cold isn't done with them.


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