As a polar vortex sweeps through the Midwest, weather authorities are warning that temperatures in several states could drop to their lowest levels in a generation. Frostbite, hypothermia, and other life-threatening conditions are possible in many areas, so make sure you know how to stay safe during the 2019 polar vortex.
One of the most important things you can do is stay inside as much as possible, especially during the coldest parts of the day, which the National Weather Service (NWS) reports generally happen in the early morning. Vast swaths of schools and offices were closed around the Midwest as of Wednesday morning.
If you do need to leave your home, wear multiple layers and cover up as much of your skin as possible (NWS has an infographic explaining proper winter attire). Above all, shelter yourself from the wind, which is expected to dramatically increase the risk of frostbite in many places. The nose, fingers, toes, and ears are often most at risk of frostbite because they receive less blood flow, according to CBS2. The outlet reports that cotton is a less effective material for mittens and socks than wool, leather, or fleece. Mittens are warmer than gloves, and socks shouldn't be so fat that they stifle the blood flow that keeps your feet from freezing.
According to NWS, you should also "avoid taking deep breaths" if you're going outside and "minimize talking." If you're driving somewhere, the agency suggests that you fill your vehicle with as much gas as possible so that you can stay warm if you get stranded. The agency also recommends that you pack a winter survival kit that includes jumper cables, blankets, water, non-perishable food, and a shovel.
What about if you're coming inside and are worried that your exposure to the cold may have damaged your body? According to Web MD, you should use warm water to heat your skin back up instead of using a direct heat source like a fire or a radiator. Don't get the water too hot, though: You may burn yourself because you feel numb to the temperature. Continue until the skin is warm and red, and then apply bandages. Don't rub your skin at all, and don't warm it unless you're able to maintain its new temperature. Call 911 if your skin is white or black.
Stay safe in your home, too. Don't keep your thermostat set extremely high, just in case you end up needing to conserve fuel; one expert recommended to USA Today that people keep them at 68 degrees. Put new batteries in your carbon monoxide alarms. Add extra insulation around exposed pipes to prevent them from freezing; you can also let out a small, continuous trickle from any that you're particularly worried about. Be aware of how much snow is on your roof and whether it's at a dangerous level.
CNN reports that 72 percent of the population in the continental United States will experience below-freezing temperatures this week, and around a quarter of the population will see the temperature drop below zero. The Midwest will experience the worst of it by far: Meteorologist Michael Guy noted that the wind chill in one Minnesota community was -66 degrees on Wednesday.
With that in mind, be sure to keep you and your loved ones safe. After the worst of the weather has passed, check on your neighbors — especially those who are elderly. And don't forget to help the homeless population in your community, who is most at risk of frostbite and hypothermia during the vortex.