How to gauge when it’s too dangerously cold to go outside

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  • Authorities across the US have blamed nine deaths over the past week on the low temperatures.
  • In one Minnesota town, it was negative 36 degrees Fahrenheit last week.
  • Older adults and young people are vulnerable to the low temperatures, but everyone should bundle up and take extra care to keep your hands, core, face, and head warm.
  • If it’s below zero degrees (Fahrenheit), or the windchill dips below -18, it’s best to stay indoors and limit any skin exposure to less than 30 minutes outside.

Things are getting more than a little chilly this winter.

The frigid waters of Lake Superior are looking steamy-hot as they waft into the below-zero air in northern Minnesota. On New Year’s Day, the temperature dipped to a record low of negative 9 degrees Fahrenheit in Chicago. Ice chunks cluttered the city’s river, prompting the cancellation of a polar plunge.

In Atlanta, doctors are reporting a spike in hypothermia cases after temperatures dropped into the teens on New Year’s Day. Kids in Indianapolis saw classes were cancelled on Tuesday, as public schools deemed the -12 degree morning too glacial for little ones to wait for the bus.

Authorities across the US have blamed nine deaths over the past week on the chill, the Associated Press reports. And it’s far from over – a “cold-weather bomb” is currently bearing down on the East Coast.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 1,260 people die every year from being out in frigid temperatures. It’s a sobering reminder that sometimes it really is too cold to be outside.

But how cold, exactly, is too cold?

The Mayo Clinic suggests winter-loving exercisers should stay indoors for their workouts whenever the temperature dips into sub-zero territory. When the windchill drops below negative 18 Fahrenheit, frostbite can inch up fingers and toes in as little as half an hour.

Not everyone reacts to cold in the same way, though. Biologists who’ve studied the Inuit people of Greenland think they may carry genes that help them process fat differently and stay warmer than others. Older adults with weakened heart muscle cells, on the other hand, can be especially vulnerable: more than half of cold-weather deaths occur in people over 60, according to the CDC. People with poor circulation and weakened immune systems are also susceptible to cold. (Having perpetually cold hands and feet are conditions largely determined by a person’s genes.)

Here are five tips to keep in mind in the cold, bitter temperatures:

Avoid early morning hours outside.

The chilliest part of the day is typically during the dark hours early in the morning, so avoid going outside at that time if you can.

Layering keeps you warmer.

The National Weather Service suggests layering loose, lightweight clothes, since the air that gets trapped between layers of fabric acts as extra insulation. If you’re exercising or shoveling outside, you always can peel off layers as you go, so as not to overheat.

Don’t wear water-logging cottons.

Opt for moisture-wicking, waterproof, breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex or fleece. Wool garments won’t absorb sweat, either. As Thomas Altena with the American College of Sports Medicine writes, “the ice formed on top of the fabric creates a natural wind barrier effective for keeping a person warm.”

Your head is important. Cover it with a hat or hood.

It’s a myth that you lose the majority of your body heat from your head. Scientists have dropped people into cold water to study this, and found that a head exposed to the cold will increase total heat loss by about 10%. But a chilly head nonetheless impacts your core temperature, leading your entire body to cool off faster. So make your mother proud and bundle up on top. first snowball girl happy

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Cover as much skin as possible to avoid frostbitten fingers and toes.

The first clues that you might be drifting into frostbite territory include numb, red skin and stinging or burning. After that, skin can turn white or grayish-yellow. It’s best to see a doctor if you think this is happening, but if you can’t get medical attention right away, remember to re-warm any exposed body parts slowly, submerging them in warm, not hot, water, or even re-heating them under your armpits, as the CDC suggests.