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The calendar might say spring, but some of the U.S. is still battling winter weather

Photo: Yellowcloud via Flickr

The last few days in Minnesota have tested the lower limits of the thermometer, with temperatures hovering between comfortable and extremely cold. With so many people making an effort to stay active through the winter months, it’s especially important that people take precautions before heading outside to protect themselves from the cold.

We spoke to one University of Minnesota expert on how to stay warm this winter.

“The best thing you can do is attempt to reduce body heat loss,” said Mary Benbenek, Ph.D., R.N., a clinical assistant professor in the School of Nursing. “That means bundling and covering exposed skin. You should also wear layers so you don’t overheat.”

Benbenek, who also works in the University of Minnesota Physicians Primary Care Center, has some suggestions on how to layer.

To start, she advises absorbent fabrics for a bottom layer. This layer serves to whisk water, which can get cold and cause a chill, from the body. On top of that, look to fabrics like wool that will retain heat. To complete the ensemble, wear a wind- and water-resistant outer layer.

While adequate clothing is a must, it isn’t necessarily a guarantee for repelling the cold.

“If you start feeling cold and shivering, move indoors and warm up before continuing whatever activity you’re doing,” Benbenek said. “Limit your time outdoors on those really cold days. You can become frostbitten in really short order in freezing temperatures.”

Frostbite isn’t the only danger in extremely cold temperatures. Illnesses like the cold and influenza run rampant when temperatures drop. This winter has seen a particularly fierce spread of influenza across the country.

“When it’s cold, we’re indoors more, so we’re in contact with people more and germs spread more quickly. The spread of the cold and flu is not from the cold, per se, but being indoors so much,” Benbenek said.

Another side effect of freezing temperatures is hypothermia. This happens when the body can’t produce enough heat to counteract how much is being lost. Hypothermia makes it difficult for a person’s nervous system and organs to function properly.

“When you get hypothermic, your brain slows down so you don’t realize you’re cold,” Benbenek said. That’s when people may make bad decisions that could compound their risk.

As temperatures continue to stay down in the next few weeks, everyone should keep an eye on the thermometer and be diligent when dressing. Infants and older people are especially vulnerable to the cold. Because their immune systems and blood circulation aren’t as strong as in an average adult, people of these ages should bundle with extra care.

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