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Frigid Weather Brings Risks for Hypothermia, Frostbite

Arctic air is settling over central Illinois, and anyone who's stepped outside has felt its effects. Well-wishers are quick to warn others to bundle up, but the consequences of not following that advice are pretty severe.

Hypothermia is when the body temperatures are colder than normal, causing body functions slow down. Frostbite is when skin and tissue literally freeze.

Kids and the elderly are most at risk for developing frostbite or hypothermia. Both are caused by prolonged exposure to the cold. In temperatures like this, weather related illnesses are a major concern, especially for those who dont have resources to stay warm.

"Imagine you're not attired for the cold...and you have to live in it. It's just something we can't imagine," Rod Lane, Executive Director of Helping Hands Homeless shelter said.

His organization hands out coats, hats, and gloves to its clients to help them weather the elements, but there are still times when warm clothing isn't enough to ward off serious medical conditions brought on by the cold.

"You can develop signs of hypothermia in just a few minutes. Exposed skin as the wind chill lessons, you can develop frostbite much more quickly," Dr. Chris McDowell with Memorial Medical Centers Emergency Room said.

Wind chill can make it feel much colder as winds quickly whip heat away from the body. On a cold and windy day, hypothermia or frostbite can set in much quicker. Ignoring these conditions could send you to the ER for treatment.

"Hypothermia-if treated- is usually reversible and people go on to do very well. Frostbite depends on how severe the frost bite was," McDowell explained.

Hypothermia starts with slowing cognitive activity, such as confusion. Frostbite is a concern when exposed skin goes from red to gray or yellow. Without treatment, hypothermia can cause the heart to stop and severe frostbite could mean amputation.

McDowell says people who have to work outdoors usually do well in the cold because they are dressed properly and know to take breaks. For anyone else who has to be outdoors he advises wearing layers, covering as much skin as possible, staying dry, and staying sober.

Alcohol dulls senses, meaning an individual suffering from hypothermia or frostbite might not notice the symptoms as quickly.

Lane asks people to keep in mind the fact that not everyone has access to a warm house and warm clothes.

"I hope everyone has a happy holiday and they do remember the homeless during this holiday season," Lane said.

Helping Hands shelter has been filling every bed at night, but Springfield does have other resources including an overflow shelter. Helping Hand's staff says if you see someone out in the cold that may need a warm bed call 211. This is a line the united way uses to help link those in need with resources.