Winter Safety

Frigid Temps: Cold Weather Safety Tips from an ER Doctor

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

A polar vortex has the state of Michigan and much of the Midwest bracing for potentially record-breaking cold this week. Some areas of Lower Michigan could face wind chills as low as 45 degrees below zero, according to the National Weather Service.

While many businesses, schools and government offices are closed today, remember that hospitals and health clinics are open and ready to treat the community’s medical needs, despite the cold. That said, here are some precautions you should take to ensure you don’t need to make a visit to the ER due to a potentially dangerous fall or for frostbite or hypothermia.

“In extreme cold, and potentially dangerous weather conditions, avoid going outside unless necessary. Follow weather conditions on your local news channels or the National Weather Service,” says Pino Colone, M.D., an emergency medicine doctor at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.

The Risks of Frostbite

Frostbite can occur within minutes of bare skin exposure with freezing temperatures, according to Dr. Colone. Fingers, toes, ears and the nose are most at risk for frostbite, so be sure to cover those areas with protective cold weather wear. Signs and symptoms of frostbite include pain and the skin turning white.

If you are get frostbite, NEVER put the affected area in hot water. This will cause more damage. Instead, gently warm your fingers or toes with warm water.

If the area does not become pink again or pain does not go away, seek medical attention immediately.

Related Topic: Just the Facts on Frostbite and Hypothermia

Preventing Falls

Avoiding falls is also important in current weather conditions. The same precautions are in place to avoid going outside unless necessary and follow local weather reports. If you are walking outside, be alert of your surroundings and watch for icy conditions. Take short shuffling steps and walk at a slower pace so you can react quickly to changes in traction, especially when walking on an icy or snow-covered walkway.

“Apply ice-melting materials, like rock salt or calcium chloride to sidewalks and driveways, but remember salt may not work in extreme cold conditions,” warns Dr. Colone. (And if you’ve got four-legged friends in your backyard, remember to choose ice-melting products that are pet-friendly, as some of these products can irritate paws or be harmful if ingested.)

Related Topic: Avoiding Falls During Winter Weather

In the case of a fall or if you have symptoms of hypothermia, be sure to seek medical care as soon as possible. Call 911 or go to the nearest ER.

Not sure where to go? Visit henryford.com/sameday for answers. 


Dr. Pino Colone is a board-certified emergency medicine physician, seeing patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.