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Your first freeze? 5 ways to survive it

By Charles Bryant
January 7, 2014 -- Updated 1603 GMT (0003 HKT)
Snow and ice blanket downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi River on Wednesday, January 8. Snow and ice blanket downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi River on Wednesday, January 8.
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Winter weather grips U.S.
Winter weather grips U.S.
Winter weather grips U.S.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Charles Bryant: If you're not used to polar vortex-type weather, here are some tips
  • He says respect wind chill; exposed skin can lead to frostbite or worse
  • He says if symptoms of hypothermia, get warmed up, stay calm, share body heat
  • Bryant: Wear hat, hydrate (no alcohol), and if you lose power build fire (think safely)

Editor's note: Charles W. (Chuck) Bryant is the co-host, with Josh Clark, of Discovery Channel's 'Stuff You Should Know.' The pair has released nearly 600 episodes of their award-winning show since 2008.

(CNN) -- 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.

Chuck Bryant
Chuck Bryant

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.

Keep them horizontal and calm, and reassure them that they're going to be fine. Use each other's body heat to warm up by getting into a sleeping bag together or simply hugging each other tight to create warmth. And, of course, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

3: Wear a hat, despite the myth

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You've probably heard the popular myth that you lose most of your body heat through your head. This myth was perpetuated by an outdated U.S. Army survival training manual that stated that 40% to 50% of our body heat is lost through the head. The truth is, you lose the same amount of heat through your head as you would any part of your body that is exposed to the elements However, you're way more likely to go out into the cold without a warm hat, than say, a shirt or a pair of shoes. But just because you don't lose more heat through your head doesn't mean you should leave your winter hat on the rack. Wearing a touque is a great way to assist your heavy coat, gloves, boots and snow pants in keeping all of you warm. Think of it as capping off your winter clothing plan.

4: Keep Hydrated

Hydration isn't just a warm weather worry. Many people forget that you need water in the freezing cold just as much as you do in hot weather. If your pipes are frozen, eating some snow or ice may seem like a great idea, but it will lower your core temperature and actually bring on dehydration. You can melt the snow or ice, but remember that while it can be safe to ingest in more remote locations, drinking water from melted "city snow" is a risk. You'll also want to avoid drinking only coffee or alcohol as a warming technique. I know this one is tough to resist since it may give you a short-term warm up, but it'll dehydrate you much more quickly. If you must indulge, remember to also drink plenty of water along with your coffee or toddy.

5: Light Your Fire

A fire is the best way to fight a winter chill if you're stuck in your home without power. And this means only fireplaces. You should never use your gas oven or stove to warm up under any circumstances as it could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. But if you have a fireplace or a kerosene heater you're in luck. Use your fireplace as your main heat source, and if you can, sleep in the room with it — just not too close and with a protective fire screen. The last thing you want to do is wake up to find that fire has moved from the fireplace to your living room carpet.

If this vortex leaves you worried that winters could be severe in your part of the country from now on, before the next one, make sure you have a nice stockpile of wood, as it will be tougher to find once a storm hits, and outages can last days or weeks depending on how severe the weather is and how competent our utility company is in restoring power.

And here's a new summer task to consider: Make sure your chimney is clear and clean before the chimney sweeps are all booked up — and the next vortex swoops down from the north.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Charles Bryant

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