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With Temperatures Falling To Dangerous Lows, Cook County Doctor Provides Tips On How To Stay Safe

CHICAGO (CBS) – Right now, we're seeing the most frigid temperatures we've seen this season and it's quickly getting colder. As temperatures drop, being outside for too long can become a matter of life and death.

Every year, hundreds of Cook County residents suffer serious injuries due to frostbite and over-exposure to harsh weather.

CBS News Chicago's Jamaica Ponder was joined by Dr. Stathis Poulakidas, Director of burn surgery at the Hospital of Cook County, to discuss how we can keep ourselves and one another safe in these dangerously low temperatures.

Jamaica: Could you tell me and walk me through what frostbite is and how people can get seriously injured from being out in the cold?

Dr. Poulakidas: There's kind of two processes that go with frostbite: one is called frostnip.

It's a reversible process where you kind of go outside, you get cold, your fingers get them, but you go inside again, and the numbness goes away.

Then there's frostbite, which is the irreversible process. You start to sustain tissue injury because you almost crystallized the blood supply going to end organs, meaning like fingers and toes and legs and ears, nose -- all areas that were the blood supply kind of stopped.

With that cold affecting those blood vessels, the blood vessels stop placing blood into that area and the tissue starts to necrosis or die.

Jamaica: What are some side effects of tissue dying in say, your fingers or in your ears?

Dr. Poulakidas: One of the worst side effects is obviously, you know, somebody with a severe cold injury could die from the cold injury itself. but then the morbidity is the real bad thing about sustaining frostbite to limbs, etc. is that they can lose a lot of tissue and end up having amputations as well.

Jamaica: What are some symptoms if you're out in the cold you've been out for a little while? How can you start to tell if you're starting to go past the point of no return and have frostbite as opposed to frostnip?

Dr. Poulakidas: Well, the tricky thing is that, after a little bit of time, maybe half an hour and 30 minutes, you start to have some numbness to the tissues, and so you get a false sense of security that you're actually feeling better and that you can continue to stay outdoors.

Some of our own domiciled folks as well, as you know, intoxicated patients or somebody who might have some mental illness, they don't realize that they're outdoors for that long or, again, they just don't have the opportunity to get to a safe place. And so, what happens is they probably don't sense anything at that point in time. And because of that, they sustain such horrific injuries.

Jamaica: So, what is the typical timeframe that somebody can stay outside in you know sub-zero temperatures.

Dr. Poulakidas: Sub-zero really kind of lowers the amount of time that you can spend outdoors you know we kind of look at a 30 minute to an hour mark, where you know you know you're starting to risk tissue injury. After which point in time, get to some of the re-warming centers or you could sustain permanent tissue loss and potentially even death.

We really want to kind of get the message out to make sure that our patients are safe, and our citizens of Cook County are safe because really, we're here to take care of everybody. But we would prefer to have them all be safe, and you know, without losing their, you know, vital limbs and things that are so dependent on in our communities that might be un-domicile.

Jamaica: About how many people in Chicago are susceptible to sustaining like-frostbite injuries when it gets this cold?

Dr. Poulakidas: I can tell you, just at Cook County Hospital, we probably see somewhere between 100 to 250 frostbite victims over the course of just the winner alone. I know Loyola and the University of Chicago probably see similar numbers as well, so, unfortunately, the numbers are quite high.

Dr. Poulakidas: And we'll carry out amputations, all the way into the summertime, believe it or not. For some of the people that just lack access to care and end up kind of falling into our laps down the road. So, it's a frightening proposition for us and you know, we want to obviously see everybody, do well.

You know, we are hence doing this message to get that out there, that you know you get safe and get into the warming centers or into some of the homeless shelters as best as possible.

But again, it's also people who work to you know just kind of common sense layer up, protect yourself. if your gloves or whether your shoes are wet, change up sooner, because you can sustain frostbite and even a higher temperature, then you have a cold today.

So even at 45 degrees, for example, then with wet clothing and maybe a little touch of wind chill you can actually sustain frostbite.

At that higher temperature, you don't need to have sub-zero temperatures. The sub-zero just makes it a lot easier to sustain the injury, as does alcohol, as does you know the history of lack of good blood flow to the tissues, as does smoking.

Jamaica: Around how cold does it have to be for you to start seeing people coming in with injuries?

Dr. Poulakidas: Around that 40-degree mark we start seeing people come in with injuries. Now you know, unfortunately, we're going to have a significant surplus of patients coming in now with this very cold weather that we're going to see in the next 48 hours.

Jamaica: What options exist for those who might be unhoused or not have permanent housing?

Dr. Poulakidas: Of course, there are homeless shelters, as you know– but, then the city of Chicago is wonderful. They provide us with warming facilities, where people can go into [over] the course of the day to get warmed. They get a good meal and, ultimately, you know our hospitals serve as our safety net and Cook County is one of those hospitals.

Jamaica: Anything that people can do at home, before going to the hospital…is there anything that they can do before coming to you?

Dr. Poulakidas: They can do some simple techniques that we don't want them to do, like try to put hot water on it, the title kind of. you know melt the ice, so to speak, but because they can sustain a deep burn on top of their frostbite injury so lukewarm water is re-warming. Obviously, warming indoors, getting out of their wet clothing, if they are in wet clothing.

Dr. Poulakidas: I think you know if you see somebody that's outdoors for a prolonged period of time or if you know you might know somebody who might be homeless or maybe actually mentally handicapped or mentally challenged… You know, maybe… maybe try to contact some of the warming shelters yourself to see how we can help the individuals, we can get them to safety.

Jamaica: It's the community being proactive.

Dr. Poulakidas: We have to be proactive and help one another out and embrace each other, and you know, show love for one another to help each other through this tough time.

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