Withstanding the winter cold

Imagine a picture postcard: evergreens covered with a thick layer of snow, snowflakes gently falling on the head of a child trying to catch them with her tongue, flickering lights. The image is so magical that we forget the intense cold that had to be braved for this picture to be taken. We sometimes forget that winter is synonymous with frozen toes and fingers, and runny noses, not to mention the icy winds that make our legs feel like popsicles.

But we can’t let winter get us down. After all, this is Manitoba, love it or leave it. Either way, cold weather is dangerous.

First of all, what happens to our bodies when the weather is cold? There is a heat transfer between our bodies and environment; in other words, our body heat escapes into the environment. In addition, the cold is so relentless that it would take all our heat if we allowed it to. Fortunately the body has a weapon against the cold, which prevents us from turning into icicles. It has a mechanism known as a “thermoregulator,” a kind of thermostat that keeps our internal temperature at 37°C.

But have you noticed that even if you wear thermal mitts and boots, you have a hard time keeping your ears, fingers and toes warm? Because the body works hard to maintain its internal temperature, it needs to conserve its energy. Therefore, it reduces the blood flow to our hands, feet, ears and nose. That’s quite a sacrifice! And since the brain cannot be deprived of oxygen, this mechanism does not apply to our heads. So when our heads are not properly protected, they allow our precious heat to escape. This is why it is important to wear that pink and green toque that grandma knitted us.

Because it is trying to maintain its internal temperature, the body sends us signals to warn us that it’s getting colder; these include shivering, shaking, redness and pain. We need to pay attention to these signals, because there are many dangers associated with the cold.

First of all, we can suffer from severe frostbite. The parts of the body that are exposed or inadequately protected become sore and red and then turn grey. In the most severe cases, amputation may be necessary.

We can also suffer from hypothermia when our body temperature drops below 35°C. The cold, humidity and wind are all factors that contribute to hypothermia. Hypothermia can be dangerous, even deadly. People suffering from hypothermia shiver and shake and then begin to fumble, stumble and mumble. Above all, know how to recognize the early signs of hypothermia!

In addition, the cold can be particularly dangerous for the elderly and chronically ill. To maintain its temperature, the body increases blood flow to the heart and lungs. Therefore, fighting against the cold requires more effort. These people may be putting their health at risk if they spend an extended period of time in extremely cold weather conditions.

We need to take special care in very cold weather. First of all, dress for the weather: cover your head. Toques or hats act like lids that retain heat. When we remove these lids, we can lose up to 30% of our body heat. Pay special attention to your extremities, i.e. your hands and feet. They are particularly vulnerable because of the reduced blood flow. Finally, use the layering technique: wear several layers of clothes, because the layers of air help to insulate you. If you have to go outside when it’s cold, move! However, if you are at risk, minimize outdoor activities.

In extreme cold, if you absolutely have to get around by car, at least bring a blanket, extra clothing, a cell phone, matches and candles, and make sure you have a full tank of gas. If you are stuck on the side of the road, run the motor for 10 minutes every hour, and crack a window open to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Stretch from time to time and be careful not to discharge the battery unnecessarily.

Above all, when the temperature rises a bit and it’s nice enough to spend some time outdoors, take advantage of it. Go for a walk, make a snow angel, go tobogganing or go skating in the winter wonderland! You’ll stay in shape and winter won’t seem so long.