The below-freezing temperatures forecast for the holiday weekend have Philadelphia-area officials canceling polar bear plunges, debating whether to let the Mummers march on New Year’s Day, and warning about the health effects of extreme cold for those willing to brave the Eagles game on Sunday afternoon or New Year’s Eve fireworks that evening.
But if you think it is cold here, try heading up to Allagash, Maine, where the temperature was a brisk 14 below zero on Friday morning.
“That is not with the wind chill,” said Patricia Pelletier, the chair of selectmen for the 200-person town in the northern, wooded part of the state. Allagash is the closest town to Big Black Bear River, which boasted the nation’s coldest temperature of the day with minus 32 degrees at 7 a.m., according to the National Weather Service.
So what do Allagashers do when it is that cold?
“We go to work,” said Pelletier. “We’re used to it. It is always cold up here in the winter.”
There are a few concessions they make to the cold, Pelletier acknowledged. She usually tosses an extra blanket, coat and boots into her car “just in case.” Everyone checks on elderly neighbors.
“I wear a sweatshirt,” she added. “Anything that is warm and thick. You want to be prepared in case your car freezes up.”
Mostly, people and their pets just stay inside, Pelletier said.
“Everyone just knows it’s winter,” she said.
In Pennsylvania, it’s a crime to leave a dog tied up outside for more than 30 minutes if the temperature is below freezing (32 degrees), thanks to “Libre’s law,” the animal-cruelty legislation signed this summer. And you’ll want to take precautions even when you take Fido outside for walks.
In most places, you never want to let a dog wander around unleashed, but the Pennsylvania SPCA notes this is especially critical when it’s so cold, since canines can get disoriented due to a diminished sense of smell. When you get back indoors, wipe off your pet’s paws to remove any snow or road salt. And keep an eye out for signs of frostbite — in both canines and humans.
Health risks from the cold
Frostbite in people is a special risk to the nose, toes, fingers, ears, face — anything that’s exposed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early warning signs are redness, numbness, or pain, white or grayish-yellow skin, and skin that feels unusually firm or waxy. People who have poor circulation due to chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure are especially prone to frostbite, as are, of course, those who aren’t dressed properly.
Hypothermia, caused by prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures, occurs when the body temperature drops below normal. Shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, and slurred speech are some of the first symptoms. Older adults who are not dressed properly, babies who sleep in cold rooms, the homeless, hikers, and hunters who are outside for long periods, or anyone who drinks alcohol or uses illicit drugs, may be at particular risk.
Anyone with symptoms of either condition should seek medical care promptly, according to the CDC.
How to dress for chilly conditions
If you must venture out, dress properly.
“Layering is key,” said Nicole Kulp, spokeswoman for Buckman’s Ski & Snowboard Shops, a local chain of seven stores.
“What we always start people with is a good base layer,” Kulp said. She recommends a polyester-blend fabric that will wick away sweat for both the trunk of the body and the legs. Forget cotton, which tends to hang on to moisture.
“Cotton is a huge no if you are trying to stay warm,” Kulp said. “That is no. No, no, no, no, no.”
After the base layer comes a mid-layer, like a fleece or wool sweater, for insulation. Again, never cotton, Kulp said. The outer layer depends on the activity, but you can’t go wrong with something that has more insulation and will stop wind. Down coats are a good choice to keep warm, she said.
Kulp suggests wearing mittens, so the fingers can work together to stay warm. A thin glove liner will help keep your hands from the elements if you need to slip off a mitten momentarily to use your phone, she said.
The right socks are critical, and Kulp suggests Smartwool or a poly blend.
“Always one pair of socks,” she said. “Two creates sweat.”
On single-digit days, any kind of hunting or snow boot will provide the most warmth and insulation, she said.
Any hat will do – as long as it is not cotton. A neck gator or balaclava will keep the face and neck protected, she said.
What you put in your body also matters. Alcohol may feel warming for a moment, but it encourages hypothermia. It makes your blood vessels expand, so heat is lost more rapidly.
Plus, cold air is drying to the skin, which is why you’ll want to keep your skin moisturized (use sunscreen on any exposed areas), carry lip balm and drink water. “Make sure you keep the body hydrated,” Kulp said.