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Warning: In Bitter Cold, Beware The 'Umbles'

Icy vortices, trains of snowstorms, treacherous temperatures — many people are having to learn some harsh lessons about harsh weather.

"When the weather is bitter cold," says Dr. Campbell McLaren, "we have to be vigilant — not just to protect ourselves, but those around us."

And we have to watch out for the "umbles."

As an emergency room doctor in northern New Hampshire, McLaren has specialized in hypothermia and other deleterious effects of extreme cold. He speaks in a Scottish brogue — and by telephone and email, he warns against the umbles.

"When someone stays out too long in really cold weather, blood vessels begin contracting and there is less blood flow peripherally," he says. "Our feet and fingers feel colder."

If these signs are not heeded, McLaren says, "we progressively drop our core temperature, and this can affect our brains. We make bad decisions."

And we show telltale signs of early hypothermia, what the doctor and the National Institutes of Health and other cold-weather cognescenti call the "umbles."

First we lose some fine motor skills, McLaren says, "and we start to fumble. And tumble. And stumble."

Then our cognitive abilities are compromised. "We mumble and we grumble."

If you notice these signs in yourself or in others, take swift action, McLaren says. "Get in out of the cold — shelter from cold associated with wind. Drink something hot and sweet. No alcohol."

Because if our core temperature drops a few degrees below 98.6, we start to really shiver.

Not just that wriggling that comes with a draft of cool air or an eerie feeling. Major shivering.

This involuntary response "is painful, but increases heat production in our bodies," McLaren says.

When you or someone else is shivering uncontrollably, get out of the cold, McLaren warns. "If we remain in a hostile, cold environment, shivering will cease after a variable length of time and our core temperature will plummet. At that point we are in danger of dying."

His prescription: Be alert. Dress appropriately. Don't use alcohol for inner heat. And pay attention to the "umbles." These cold-weather precautions, he adds, could save your — or someone else's — life.

The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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