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Your first freeze? 5 ways to survive it

Charles Bryant | 1/9/2014, 6 a.m.
If you're from, say, the Midwest or Northeast or Alaska, dealing with the cold is not only a way of ...

— If you're from, say, the Midwest or Northeast or Alaska, dealing with the cold is not only a way of life, but also a point of pride: You can take care of yourself, and you're not shy about pointing it out. But, as evidenced by this week's "polar vortex," cold weather can barrel through many parts of the country --- Georgia, Florida, Arkansas --- where people aren't used to sub-freezing temperatures.

There are some true life-threatening scenarios, like a car breaking down on a rural stretch of wintery road (always pack a blanket), but it can be dangerous even in your own home if you're caught without the necessities you need to keep warm, and this is especially true for the elderly.

If you're in a part of the United States new to this kind of severe weather, here are some suggestions to help you help yourself.

1: Wind chill can kill

Wind chill is the effect of moving air on exposed skin, a term coined by Antarctic explorer Paul Siple in the late 1930s to help describe how wind figures into heat loss. He experimented with wind chill's effect by timing how long it took to freeze water in varying degrees of wind strength. If you're not used to bitter wind chill, realize that you need to take it seriously when preparing for any outdoor activities. Skin exposed for five minutes in below-zero wind chill conditions can get frostbite. Longer can do worse.

Two University of California at Berkeley economists found that deaths related to cold reduced the average life expectancy of Americans by a decade, if not more. In countries where people were exposed to 10 or fewer days a year, the death rate was substantially higher than in countries with at least 90 cold days a year.

Additionally, cold weather can leave us without our thinking caps, willing to do whatever it takes to warm up. This can indirectly lead to unexpected fatalities because of accidents relating to carbon monoxide poisoning and house fires.

2: Hypothermia and layering

Hypothermia -- when your body temperature falls to 95 degrees F -- is a grim possibility if you're facing the cold without power, and layering your clothing is your best first defense against it. If you're experiencing slurred speech, stiff joints, a loss of coordination, uncontrollable shivering, loss of bladder control, puffy face or mental confusion, you could be suffering from hypothermia, which can be fatal. To combat this, get yourself into a warmer environment as soon as you can. Cover yourself with any items you can find -- blankets, sleeping bags, pillows. Just as you layer your upper body clothing, you should also layer what you have on your feet. Try a thin pair of nylon, silk or wool socks for starters -- then layer with additional wool socks. If you think a loved one is suffering from hypothermia, you should handle that person with great care, as the condition could make it easy for him or her to go into cardiac arrest.