Prolonged exposure to the cold can be dangerous and life-threatening. During Maine’s long winters, people are at risk of cold-related illnesses such as hypothermia and frostbite. People most likely to be exposed to dangerous cold include those who lack shelter, work outdoors, or live in homes with or inadequate heat. Seniors, infants, people with chronic cardiovascular or lung conditions, people using alcohol or drugs, and people with cognitive impairments or mental health conditions are at increased risk.
Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposures to very cold temperatures that cause the body to lose heat faster than it’s produced. Lengthy exposures will eventually use up a body’s stored energy, which leads to lower body temperature.
Body temperature that is too low negatively affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia especially dangerous, because a person may not know that it’s happening and may not be able to do anything about it.
Warnings signs of hypothermia for adults include shivering, exhaustion or feeling very tired, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, or drowsiness. Bright red, cold skin or very low energy are hypothermia symptoms for babies.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If someone has any signs, take their temperature and get them immediate medical attention if it is below 95° F.
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Frostbite is an injury that occurs when a body part freezes after being exposed to cold. It leads to a loss of feeling and color in the areas it affects, typically the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation.
Signs of frostbite include redness or pain in any skin area, white or grayish-yellow skin, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, or numbness. A person who has frostbite may not know they have it until someone else points it out because the frozen parts of their body are numb.
As with hypothermia, someone with frostbite symptoms should get to a warm shelter as soon as possible and seek medical attention if their situation does not improve. If you suspect someone is experiencing frostbite, warm the center of their body first by removing any wet clothing and wrapping them in blankets. Do not immerse the person in warm water. Warming the body too quickly can cause heart arrhythmia.
The easiest way to prevent hypothermia and frostbite is to stay indoors and warm during stretches of very cold weather. If you must go outside, dress in warm layered clothing with a water-resistant jacket and boots. Cover the head, face, ears, fingers, and mouth. If you are spending time alone in the woods tell someone where you are going and pack extra food, a blanket and warm clothing.
Cold-Related Illness Data
The Maine CDC reports cold-related illness data through the Maine Tracking Network. A near real-time data dashboard provides daily updates to the number of emergency department visits for cold-related illness at the state and county levels.
The data helps to understand how Mainers are affected by exposure to cold temperatures and to monitor at-risk populations. These data can be used to examine possible time trends, seasonal trends, and geographic differences. Understanding differences over time and place can help public health professionals plan and evaluate prevention strategies for at-risk populations.
See Maine’s cold-related illness data: Go to the Data Portal
Where can I find more information about cold-related illness?
- Read a press release from Governor Mills about extreme temperatures on February 3, 2023
- Learn more about prevention of cold-related illness from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Explore education and outreach information about cold weather safety from the National Weather Service.
- Download toolkits about winter weather safety from Ready.gov.