Hypothermia and frostbite are common hazards associated with severe cold, but while cold weather can cause discomfort that can be easily remedied with a trip to the pharmacy, it can also trigger previously undiagnosed deadly diseases and sometimes serious medical problems.
Dr. Marie Savard, "Good Morning America's" medical contributor, visited the show today to talk about how you can protect yourself and recognize warning signs.
It's not unusual for cold air to cause spasms in the lung airways, making it harder to breathe. But for some people, cold air can trigger an asthma attack, which may be how the asthma is detected for the very first time.
Signs of weather-induced asthma include coughing and wheezing and an inability to catch your breath.
One way to combat these symptoms is to use a Proventil inhaler before you head outdoors. It will relax the spasms that strain the flow of air into your lungs. Check with your doctor to see if using an inhaler is right for you.
Another solution: wear a muffler or scarf around your mouth and nose. It will warm the air that you take into your lungs, which will keep your airway open.
Chest Pains Could Be Serious
If you feel chest pain when you are breathing cold air, tell your doctor immediately because it could be a sign that you have a heart condition. Just as cold air constricts the lung muscles, it can cause arteries to constrict and raise your blood pressure. For someone with an undiagnosed heart condition, simply breathing in cold air can lead to chest pain.
Even minimal exertion outdoors could trigger a heart attack, Savard said. Tell your doctor if you feel chest pain, shortness of breath or any chest discomfort or tightness in the cold.
If you already have been diagnosed with heart disease and you get chest pain in the cold, you should talk to your doctor about whether you should take a nitroglycerin tablet about 15 to 20 minutes before you go outside in winter weather.
You may have experienced tingling pain and numbness when you've been outside in the cold for any length of time, but 10 percent of people -- primarily women -- get that feeling from exposure to even the slightest cold.
Those people suffer from Raynaud's syndrome, and any exposure to the cold -- even from taking food from the freezer of a grocery store or briefly going out in the cold -- can trigger spams in the blood vessels in your fingers, toes, ears and the tip of your nose.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the spasms will cause those areas of the body to feel numb and then change color -- from white to blue then red. That happens because the arteries that supply blood to the skin close down, limiting blood circulation to the affected areas. In serious cases, an artery can be totally blocked, resulting in sores or even gangrene.
Sufferers can take medications to prevent attacks, especially if the condition is so severe that it interferes with your ability to function in the winter months. For others, wearing mittens to keep your hands warm will prevent your arteries from constricting. Since women are more susceptible to Raynaud's, it's especially important that they keep their hands and feet warm.
Many people get nosebleeds in the winter. They're not much cause for worry, Dr. Savard said. Nosebleeds commonly occur in the winter because the nasal passages get dried out and crack -- either from the low humidity and cold air outside or from the dry heated rooms indoors. Use some ointment and saline drops to keep your nasal passages moist.