With cold comes risks, health experts say

In extreme temperatures, frostbite can occur within 10 minutes.

Allison Kronberg

Minnesotans are used to the cold, but this year’s unusually frigid winter has presented more health risks than usual.

Health experts said they’ve treated more frostbite cases this year than in past years, and recommend keeping skin covered on days with significant risk of frostbite to bare skin.

With wind chills dropping to about 40 degrees below zero on Jan. 27, University of Minnesota officials canceled classes until noon on Jan. 28. It was the first cancellation due to cold weather in more than a decade.

Safety is the University’s first priority when making these decisions, said Vice President for University Services Pam Wheelock. She said students don’t need to worry yet about having to make up the lost school day at the end of the year.

Shawn DeVinny, Twin Cities National Weather Service meteorologist, said the subzero temperatures were the result of a persistent low-pressure system that typically resides over the North Pole, but  it sank into the northern United States and was dubbed a “Polar Vortex” by national media.

In these extreme temperatures, DeVinny said, frostbite can take effect in less than 10 minutes.

Last month, Boynton Health Service diagnosed four cases of frostbite. While still a relatively low number, it’s more January frostbite cases than Boynton has seen in almost 10 years.

Frostbite is different from the skin’s typical response to the cold, said Dr. Andrew Topliff, a physician in urgent care at Boynton. Usually in very cold temperatures, skin can turn red or itch, a reaction known formally as chilblains. This typically goes away after a period of rewarming, he said.

Frostbite refers to ice crystals forming within a person’s cells, he said. Just like when a can of liquid freezes, too much pressure can make cells burst.

Simple anti-inflammatories can treat significant redness and some pain in first-degree frostbite. But blisters or nerve and muscle damage can require skin grafts or amputations in rare third- or fourth-degree cases.

Dr. Kaysie Banton, medical trauma director at University Medical Center, Fairview, said they’ve seen three to four people with frostbite each week during the past month, but none had cases severe enough to be admitted.

Topliff and Banton said almost all of the most severe cases of frostbite and hypothermia they see are a result of drinking alcohol and going out in the cold.

“One of the things that people don’t realize is that alcohol will blunt the sensation of being cold,” Banton said. “So don’t drink and then try to walk home.”

Avoiding frostbite, Topliff said, is all about prevention, with the first step being somewhat obvious: Keep skin well covered.

“A lot of times, people dress to look nice and not really for the weather, and they don’t think about the ramifications,” he said.

Banton and Topliff said people should seek treatment for frostbite if they come inside and the color or feeling of their skin doesn’t normalize within a reasonable period of time.

U responds to extreme cold

 With many students, faculty and staff commuting to school and work, Topliff said preparing a vehicle for extreme cold is a necessity.

He said even if people are only walking a short distance from their car, they should dress fully for the cold while commuting in case their vehicle breaks down along the way.

Wheelock said student transportation was a major factor in closing the University last week.

“Some people are able to go where they need to through the tunnel system, but it’s a pretty big spread,” she said. “There’s a lot of ground to cover here.”

Health and wellness senior Safa Gamam said she kept herself bundled up last week, so she was able to relax and enjoy the time off from school.

But it will probably be the last day off for the foreseeable future, meteorologist DeVinny said.

“Through the next about week or week and a half, it will certainly be cold,” he said, “but not quite what we saw [last] Monday.”