The temperatures have dropped below freezing in some areas of the US and the human body uses some incredible mechanisms to try to stay warm.
Blood vessels constrict: Your body is built to always maintain a stable core temperature of 37 degrees Celsius (that’s 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit). When the temperature in your environment drops to freezing cold, thermoreceptors in your skin sound the alarm, alerting an area of the brain called the hypothalamus, which acts like a thermostat dedicated to maintaining that 37 degree equilibrium, according to Robert Kenefick, PhD, research physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. One of the first actions the hypothalamus takes: It tightens the blood vessels in your arms, hands, feet, and legs. 'Blood delivers heat to the skin,' says Gordon Giesbrecht, PhD, professor of thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba in Canada. 'If you decrease blood flow to the skin, you decrease heat loss from the skin.'
You have to use the bathroom more often: All that vasoconstriction forces fluid to concentrate in your core. This causes volume receptors that talk to your hypothalamus to say, 'Hey, maybe you should get rid of some of that fluid—maybe you should pee.' It’s common, say, on the ski slopes for people to use the bathroom right before they head outdoors and then to feel like they need to go again shortly after being outside
Shiver more often: Of course, you shiver when it’s cold but the reason you do is utterly interesting. 'When vasoconstriction isn’t doing enough to warm you, the hypothalamus tells your muscles to start contracting. One of the byproducts of muscle contraction is heat.' Garden-variety shivering produces about 100 watts of heat, says Giesbrecht. If you get cold enough to enter into mild hypothermia, you can produce 400 to 600 watts of heat through shivering.
You freeze much faster if wet: Why do little kids still shiver when they get out of a heated swimming pool in 80-degree weather? 'Water carries heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, so you can lose a great amount of heat very quickly when you’re wet,' says Kenefick. 'Shivering is one way your body is trying to raise your core temperature back up.
Your skin turns white and hard: These are signs of frostbite, a condition when your exposed skin gets too cold and freezes. Cheeks, nose, and fingers tend to be especially vulnerable because they are getting less blood flow because of the vasoconstriction. Also, your fingers are cylinders, which gives them more surface area relative to their size and makes them more vulnerable to heat loss. Frostbite means the skin tissue has become damaged. If it’s severe enough, says Kenefick, it can turn black and actually fall off. At first you will feel pain; as your skin gets colder and colder, it will feel numb. 'When this happens, the thermoreceptors in your skin have stopped working,' Giesbrecht says.
Your skin gets rashy ans red: Some people have an allergic reaction to cold—but not necessarily freezing—weather, a condition known as cold urticaria or, less formally, 'winter bumps.' It’s not a reaction to freezing cold weather, like frostbite, but rather just dry, cool conditions, which can cause an allergic-type reaction in certain people with sensitive skin.
You have trouble catching your breath: Normally when you inhale air, your nose helps moisten, humidify, and warm it before it moves down to the lungs. But in some people, like patients with asthma, or in some cases where the weather is just so bitter cold, the air doesn’t warm up enough first, which causes the lungs to spasm and constrict, which makes breathing difficult, says Kenefick.
Your muscles go on the fritz: As muscle tissue cools, it doesn’t work as well, says Giesbrecht. 'At first, you lose the ability to do fine motor tasks, like using your cellphone correctly,' he says. 'Then eventually [as your bigger muscle groups are affected], you might not, say, be able to hold on to an overturned boat in cold waters.
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