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5 health mistakes not to make in the bitter cold

It’s cold out there, even for our Weather Wisdom blogger David Epstein who noted in his blog this morning that it was just 2 degrees in Boston this morning, just 3 degrees shy of a January record. As of this writing, the mercury had reached a frozen-eyeglasses-inducing 6 degrees.

“I don’t use the words bitter, frigid, or dangerous very much when it comes to cold, but today they are all appropriate,” Epstein wrote.

Such a chill along with the wind has the capacity to whip heat away from your skin causing frostbite fairly quickly. “Any part of the skin that remains exposed to the air can get frostbitten within a half hour on a day like today,” said Dr. Joshua Kosowsky, clinical director of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.


That includes the tip of your nose, eyelids, and lips.

Here are five mistakes to avoid when heading outdoors into the Arctic-like air.

1. Don’t forget to cover every inch of skin. Feel free to frolic in the winter wonderland, but cover up. “I’m going snowshoeing today,” Kosowsky told me. But he’s wearing a ski mask that covers his mouth and nose and donning goggles over his eyes. Putting on gloves, jacket scarf, boots, and snow pants, goes without saying.

2. Don’t allow sweat from outdoor activities to chill you further. Any snow shoveler will soon sweat from all the heavy lifting, and drenched clothes can cause a dangerous drop in body temperature. That’s why it’s important to dress in layers, Kosowsky said, so you can remove an outer one without exposing your skin to the elements. Your best bet is to wear moisture-wicking long underwear like wool, treated silk, or certain synthetic polyesters. Unlike cotton, those don’t get drenched with sweat.

3. Don’t use hot water to warm numb fingers. You could get a nasty burn, said Dr. Andrew Ulrich, executive vice chair of the emergency medicine department at Boston Medical Center. “It’s better to warm your hands under luke-warm water,” he added, not only to prevent scalding but also to avoid painful sensations that occur from warming the hands too quickly.


4. Don’t drink too much. Most of the time we know when we’re feeling too cold and need to head indoors to warm up, but not necessarily when we’re drunk. Alcohol can impair our ability to sense the chilly danger zone, and this can raise the risk of hypothermia, which occurs when body temperatures drop to below 95°F. It’s why doctors sometimes come across college students in the emergency room who stupidly had a snowball fight in shorts and t-shirts.

5. Don’t let young kids determine when it’s time to come in. No, I’m not taking about college students here, since they should be able to exercise common sense when they’re not inebriated. Elementary school kids who are sledding or building a snowman, however, may not.

“They may not have such good judgement,” Kosowsky said. “Check on them every half-hour or so to see how they’re doing.” They should come inside if they’re shivering or complain that their hands or feet feel numb or painful—even when covered up.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.