Thursday, January 2, 2014


It’s cold outside, and that can be dangerous.

Flesh that is exposed to extreme cold will freeze, and the result is what we call frostbite. Depending upon conditions, this can sometimes happen very quickly — like in a matter of minutes. For example, you grasp a frozen bit of metal with a bare hand, or worse yet, you splash some intensely cold gasoline (which won’t freeze until far below zero) on your hands or feet while refueling a vehicle — that can cause instant severe frostbite injury.

Slower frostbite sneaks up on you over a span of time when your skin is exposed to the cold, like if you’re wandering around with no gloves on. But you can also suffer frostbite even when there’s no exposed flesh. This happens when circulation is restricted to your hands and feet due to boots and gloves that are too tight. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Here’s a question — which do you think is better in extreme cold, gloves or mittens? Here’s another one — in extreme cold weather, is it always better to wear more socks?

For the answer to these two questions, let’s see what leads to frostbite. The body is constantly trying to keep itself alive during cold weather. The highest priority is to maintain the body’s core temperature. From the core, warm blood is pumped to the extremities, like your hands and feet, to keep your fingers and toes safe from the cold. But eventually if the blood returning from those extremities comes back to the core too cold, the body decides that in order to preserve the core temperature, it will have to stop sending warm blood out to the hands and feet. With less warm blood going to the extremities, those parts can freeze even if they are fully covered by boots and gloves.

So, from the standpoint of avoiding frostbite in the fingers and toes, we need to make sure we give those extremities the best chance for survival. Now let’s go back to the question about gloves vs. mittens. Gloves isolate each finger separate from the others. Without the shared warmth of the other fingers, each one gets cold faster. When the warm blood arrives from the core, it becomes chilled and that triggers the body’s response to not send as much warm blood. And that can lead to frostbite. So wearing mittens instead of gloves can give your fingers a better chance of survival.

The same concept applies to boots and socks. If you do something that restricts circulation to your feet and toes, they become cold, and then the body stops sending so much warm blood to those extremities. So, you have to be careful about adding more socks, if that’s going to make the boots too tight and restrict circulation to your feet. Notice that serious cold-weather boots like Sorels are loose on your feet, to keep from restricting circulation. But it’s not just the boots, you don’t want to wear socks that are too tight either. Leave some wiggle room for your toes.

It’s possible to suffer frostbite even if every part of your body is covered so it’s not directly exposed to the cold. But if you wear the right kind of clothing, you can minimize the danger. I admit that mittens and big clunky boots may not be as fashionable as cute gloves and decorator footwear, but then neither is losing fingers and toes very fashionable.

And in my book, being smart trumps being in style any day.

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