Breaking news: It’s cold outside. You heard it here first … or maybe you stepped out your front door or sidled past a drafty window and figured this out a while ago.
What do the frigid temperatures mean for your health? Enough that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a 13-page manual called “Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety.” (Granted, the CDC also published a graphic novella about preparing for a zombie pandemic.)
Before I get to the health risks, some trivia:
- Body type can account for how we react to cold weather. Taller people tend to get cold faster than shorter people because they lose more heat through their larger surface area, according to the Harvard Health Letter.
- What’s wind chill exactly? From the CDC’s guide: “The temperature your body feels when the air temperature is combined with the wind speed. It is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by the effects of wind and cold. As the speed of the wind increases, it can carry heat away from your body much more quickly, causing skin temperature to drop.”
- Some like it cold. Under a treatment called “whole-body cryotherapy” developed in Japan, patients spend several minutes in a room chilled to -166 F. The therapy, originally intended to treat pain and inflammation, has caught on among athletes looking to recover from intense workouts.
Here are some of the health risks of cold weather, which I’ll follow with a few health benefits just to keep things cheery on this snowy day. (Find treatment tips in the CDC Extreme Cold guide.)
- Hypothermia. Prolonged exposure to cold can lead to the condition, which involves unsafely low body temperature. While more likely at extremely cold temperatures, hypothermia can occur at cool temperatures, above 40 degrees, if you’re chilled from rain or sweat. Symptoms include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness. A body temperature below 95 degrees is an emergency requiring immediate medical care. Seniors, who have more trouble maintaining a normal body temperature, account for nearly half of all hypothermia deaths.
- Frostbite. Exposed skin and underlying tissues can freeze, resulting in frostbite. Most often affecting the ears, nose, fingers, cheeks, chin and toes, frostbite can, in severe cases, lead to amputation. Symptoms include numbness, white or grayish-yellow skin, and skin that feels unusually firm or waxy.
- Heart problems. Deaths often increase during the winter, and higher blood pressure is a common culprit. Some research indicates that 70 percent of the wintertime spike in the death rate can be traced back to heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular problems, according to the Harvard Health Letter. For people with heart disease, exertion from snow shoveling and other cold-weather activities can prove dangerous.
Now the upside of cold weather:
- Ever heard of “brown fat?” One of two types of fat in the body, it produces heat and burns up calories in infancy before diminishing in adulthood. A 2012 study found that when people get cold, brown fat is triggered to burn off the body’s other “white fat” to fuel itself. Not exactly a reason to adopt the “Wind Chill Diet,” but a small consolation nonetheless.
- Sub-zero temperatures put a damper on mosquitoes and ticks, which can carry diseases including West Nile virus and Lyme disease. While you’re less likely to get bitten, mosquito eggs can survive the winter and deer ticks can remain alive in cold temperatures.
- Those Polar Plungers might be on to something. A Finnish study that examined the effects of “polar plunges” found that levels of norepinephrine, a naturally occurring chemical in the body that helps suppress pain, jumped threefold.