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Wind chill and frostbite: Safety tips as frigid temps blanket Colorado

When temperatures dip below freezing, it doesn't take long to develop frostbite on exposed skin.

DENVER — Bitterly cold temperatures moved into Colorado this week with temperatures plummeting below zero in Denver and across much of Colorado from Wednesday night through Friday morning.

With temperatures that cold, you'll want to limit your time outside, especially any time outside with exposed skin. At -5 degrees and a wind speed of 30 mph, frostbite will happen in about 10 minutes, according to UCHealth.

Frostbite is when the skin and other tissues get damaged from exposure to freezing temperature and happens when exposed skin gets very cold causing ice crystals to form. This leads to the blood vessels in that area freezing, causing the affected areas to go without blood, nutrients and oxygen.    

Signs of frostbite

  • Shivering is the first sign the body is losing heat
  • Numbness
  • Pale color to the skin
  • Clumsy movements
  • Pain that persists for 45 minutes after rewarming
  • Following rewarming, increased redness or discoloration

Preventing frostbite

If you do have to go outside, there are things you can do to protect yourself. Below are some tips from the UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center.

  • Dress in layers and keep outerwear dry.
  • Choose loosely woven fabric for the inside layer (wool, silk, polypropylene). These fabrics hold more heat and help avoid excessive perspiration.
  • When outside in cold temperatures, take frequent breaks indoors and assess hands, feet, ears and nose.
  • Cover your head – wear a hat and earmuffs.
  • Wear heavy mittens instead of gloves. The collective body heat from the fingers being together keeps the hand warm.
  • Two pairs of thinner socks provide better insulation than a single pair of thicker socks.
  • Be prepared when traveling in cold weather. Keep a winter survival kit in the car that includes blankets, matches and extra clothes.
Credit: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

What to do if you suspect you have frostbite?

People who think they have frostbite should get into a warm environment and remove wet clothing. 

Don't rub affected areas because that can cause more damage. 

People that believe they have frozen fingers, toes or other extremities should wait to rewarm the affected areas until they're sure they won't refreeze, doctors said.

The best way to rewarm them is by using warm water that is about 104 degrees. People with frostbite need to get medical attention within 12-24 hours of rewarming the affected areas, according to doctors. This can help save the areas from possible amputation. 

Effects of frostbite

The possible long-term effects include: 

  • Change in sensation of the injured area, including cold sensitivity, muscle weakness or joint stiffness
  • Chronic pain, secondary to nerve damage
  • Damage to sweat glands, cracking skin and nail loss
  • Possible need for amputation of the damaged digits or limb
Credit: NOAA/NWS
Wind chill and frostbite chart from NOAA/NWS.

Wind-Chill Factor

Skin exposed to cold air without any wind chill will cause you to lose your body heat in a certain amount of time. That amount of time will be different for everyone depending on things like body type, weight and age. When you add in wind, that accelerates the cooling of a surface.

The wind-chill factor tells you how much faster you will lose your body heat due to the additional cooling from the wind. That part of the equation is the same for everyone, no matter what your body type is.

The National Weather Service (NWS) has a chart that makes it easy to calculate the impacts of the wind-chill factor.

For example, if the air temperature is -5, but there is also a 10 mph wind, your body loses heat at the same rate that it would if the temperature was -22 degrees.

Credit: 9NEWS

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