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Warning signs of hypothermia, frostbite, heart attacks

By Marjie Gilliam

Published: Sunday, Feb. 28 2010 9:26 a.m. MST

DAYTON, Ohio -- To stay safe when exercising outdoors during the winter months, it is important to recognize possible signs of cold-related illness.

Hypothermia is a condition that can occur when the body loses too much heat, causing your core temperature to fall far below the normal 98.6. Impaired motor skills, speech and decision-making capabilities are all initial warning signs of hypothermia.

As hypothermia progresses, a person may seem confused or deny that he is cold. He may become weak or tired, breathe more shallowly and stop shivering. The decreased temperature affects the victim's mental state, and he behaves irrationally. As the body gets colder, muscles become stiff and the heartbeat uneven. Unconsciousness and death can follow.

Hypothermia can happen quickly after exercising in the cold because the body's ability to produce heat decreases while the rate of heat loss increases due to the activity performed. To prevent post-exercise hypothermia, it is important to stay hydrated, dress properly for conditions and get into a warm environment as soon as possible.

It doesn't have to be freezing outside for hypothermia to occur. Many people are surprised to learn that without dressing adequately, especially when combined with dampness and wind chill, hypothermia is entirely possible with temperatures that are as high as 50 degrees.

Treating hypothermia includes covering the victim's head, removing all wet clothing, and putting insulation beneath and around the person. Avoid putting the victim too close to a heat source, as this will stop him from shivering. Shivering is one way that the body creates heat. For severe hypothermia always seek immediate medical attention.

Frostbite and burns are similar, including the degrees to which they can occur. Symptoms of frostbite include numb, red and slightly swollen skin. The skin can appear gray or yellowish, becoming red and flaky after thawing.

With severe frostbite blisters often appear along with pale, cold, waxy and hard skin. Gradual, not sudden, warming is essential for areas affected with frostbite. While rubbing chilled hands, feet or the face may help with circulation, doing so will only cause more tissue damage if actual frostbite has occurred. If frostbite is suspected, submerge the affected areas in water that is room temperature and seek medical attention immediately.

In the cold, the arteries in the heart constrict and blood pressure rises, increasing the potential for a heart attack. This is especially true for the elderly, those with cardiovascular disease and individuals who aren't used to exercising.

Studies have shown that those who are unaccustomed to regular physical activity are up to 30 times more likely to suffer a heart attack when they engage in sudden activity or where there is great physical exertion, such as shoveling snow. One study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reported that 53 percent more heart attacks occur during winter months as compared to the summer.

If you experience any unusual or unexplained symptoms during or after physical exertion, stop the activity and seek medical attention immediately. Red flags include shortness of breath, paleness or bluish/gray coloring of the skin, lightheadedness or sudden pain, among others.

Pay attention to your breathing patterns. When your body is under stress, it requires extra amounts of oxygen, which naturally changes the way we breathe.

The vast majority of people are shallow breathers, using only a fraction of their lung capacity and barely taking in enough oxygen to expand the rib cage. Without being aware of it, with physical exertion many people hold their breaths, breathe unevenly or end up huffing and puffing during activity. Improper breathing during exercise may lead to headaches, fuzzy thinking, dizziness and/or fainting.

By trying to breath more deeply and naturally, you can actually increase your exercise capacity, the ability to do more for a longer period of time with less effort.

Lastly, become knowledgeable about heart attack warning signs and don't ignore them in yourself or others. The most noticeable symptom that your heart is in trouble is pain or discomfort in the center of the chest. Symptoms may also include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach. This feeling can last more than a few minutes, or it may go away and come back again.

Heart attack patients have described symptoms as a feeling of pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain. Shortness of breath is another warning sign and although it often comes along with chest discomfort, it can also occur beforehand. Breaking out in a cold sweat, feeling faint, dizzy or sick to your stomach are also common warning signs.

Marjie Gilliam is an International Sports Sciences Master certified personal trainer and fitness consultant. E-mail: marjie(at)ohtrainer.com. Her Web site is www.ohtrainer.com. This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News.

c.2010 Cox Newspapers

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