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At risk in just 5 minutes: Doctors share advice on coping with the extreme cold

M. Spencer Green / AP

Charlita Lucious takes in what little warmth the sun gives off as she waits for her bus in sub-zero temperatures on Monday in Chicago. Meteorologists are predicting that the most recent cold snap caused by persistent cold winds will keep temperatures below zero for what could be three days across the Midwest and beyond.

If you’re going outside in some parts of the country — the parts where it’s cold enough to close schools and ground flights — cover up.

Cover everything up.

That’s the advice of Dr. Brad Uren, an assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, who spoke with NBC News about the extreme cold gripping the Midwest and Great Lakes.

“If it’s colder than 10 below zero you can develop frostbite on exposed skin in as little as 10 minutes,” he said. That certainly covers Minnesota, where some places approached 30 below on Monday morning.

“Almost any amount of wind added to that — as little as a 5 mph wind — and you’re fast approaching the point where there’s a risk of frostbite in just five minutes.”

Cold weather can prove fatal if the body’s core temperature drops too far, he explained. It starts with shivering and can lead to confusion and even heart arrhythmia.

His advice for when you have to go out: It’s a good time to bring out the ski masks, the scarves, “anything else you need to cover up your face.”

Uren cautioned people who live in areas that will experience extreme cold to talk to their doctors about the medications they’re taking. Some can make you more susceptible to the chill’s dangerous effects.

And people with diabetes shouldn’t be out at all in extreme weather like this, Uren said. That’s because they tend to have less sensation in their toes, so they may not get frostbite’s warning signs.

If you’re working outside and you need to use your bare hands, you need to be very conscious of how long your skin has been exposed to the cold, Uren said. “The usual story you hear from people who come in with frostbite is, ‘I thought I could do just a couple minutes more.’”

People who need to work outside should remember to take regular breaks in this weather, said Dr. Clifton Callaway, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

“This is when we get into life-threatening temperatures and wind chills,” Callaway said. “People working outside in some of the high wind chills should be outside only 30 to 60 minutes before taking a break to make sure that they get their body temperature back up.”

Bottom line: Listen to your body. Tingling is an early sign of frostbite, but Uren cautioned that you shouldn’t be waiting for warning signs of frostbite — if you feel any discomfort, it’s time to get out of the cold.



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