Freezing Temperatures: When Is It is Unsafe to Be Outside?

January 28, 2014
by Michael Barber
Freezing Temperatures: When Is It is Unsafe to Be Outside?

In many parts of the United States, the winter season brings snow, ice, and chilly seasonal activities like sledding, skiing, snowboarding, and ice skating. Whether you’re planning to flop down and make snow angels or simply brave the walk to work, you must first understand the potential dangers of cold weather. Keep an eye out for these signs of potential hazards and take proper measures to stay safe all season.

Calculating the Wind Chill Temperature

The wind chill temperature is what the outside temperature feels like when combined with the wind speed. The faster the wind is blowing, the more effective it is at carrying heat away from your body. Though the temperature may be 10 degrees outside, it will actually feel like a mere 1 degree with a wind speed of 5 miles per hour. If the wind speed reaches 20 mph, ten degrees will feel like -9. At 30 mph, it feels like -12. The wind chill temperature is what determines the danger you’re facing from exposure.

Unsafe Temperatures

Frostbite will set in within half an hour when wind chill temperatures are -18 or below.  It will set in even faster as temperatures drop and wind speeds increase. A high wind is more dangerous than a low temperature in these situations. You can get frostbite in just 10 minutes at a wind chill of -33 if the wind is blowing at 60 mph. At a wind speed of 5 mph, the wind chill can reach -57 before you’re at the same level of danger. The National Weather Service offers a handy wind chill temperature index to help you gauge the danger level.

Frostbite Symptoms and Treatment

Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissues actually freeze. The extremities and exposed areas of skin are at the highest risk. Frostbite is most likely on the hands, feet, ears, and nose. Signs of frostbite include:

  • A waxy, hard, or greyish-yellow appearance
  • Itching or burning skin
  • Numbness
  • Pain and redness as the skin warms up

If you suspect that you’re in danger of developing frostbite, cover the exposed area as soon as possible. Tuck cold hands into your armpits to help warm them and get inside as soon as possible. Remove wet clothes once you’re indoors and warm the affected area slowly.

Hypothermia Symptoms and Treatment

Hypothermia is a dangerously low body temperature of 95 F or lower. Untreated hypothermia can lead to death. Symptoms include:

  • Disorientation
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness or exhaustion
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Apathy

Hypothermia requires immediate medical attention. Keep the person warm while you wait for help, but do not apply extreme heat. As with frostbite, be sure to warm them slowly.

Preventative Measures

Always check the wind chill and not just the temperature before you head outside in winter. Wear layers for added warmth and insulation. Keep a hat on, as you can lose 40 percent of your body heat through your head.

With proper precautions, it’s possible to have a safe and exciting time outdoors in cold weather. Take measures to stay warm and enjoy the season.