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Alberta emergency rooms treat hundreds of frostbite cases during cold snap

A woman bundled up in winter wear walks through Calgary's downtown on Jan. 10. (Monty Kruger/CBC - image credit)
A woman bundled up in winter wear walks through Calgary's downtown on Jan. 10. (Monty Kruger/CBC - image credit)

Alberta's emergency rooms have faced an influx of people suffering due to the cold.

The province plunged into a deep freeze last week, prompting extreme cold weather alerts and pushing the power grid to the limit.  And while the worst of it is over, many communities are still grappling with chilly temperatures.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, it was –32 C in Grande Prairie and –29 C in Medicine Hat early Friday.

"When it's really cold, the ERs are actually not as busy. People are not as active. They're not coughing on each other. They're not getting out of the house as much," said Dr. Eddy Lang, department head of emergency medicine in the Calgary zone.

"So the overall number of visits did actually go down."

But, at the same time, cold-related visits spiked last week.

According to Lang, there were 230 ER and urgent care visits for frostbite in Alberta last week.

For comparison, during previous weeks, there were 15 to 20, he said.

Frostbite can be very serious and can lead to amputation.

"We're worried about people who have essentially obtained a burn to their skin except it's a freezer burn. It's a freezing of the crystals of the tissue in the skin and below the skin, " he explained.

"And it is important that once you see those bluish-grey discolourations that are persisting that you seek emergency care quickly."

Lang said Calgary zone ERs and urgent care centres saw 90 frostbite patients last week, many of them vulnerable Calgarians.

"It's people who cannot get into shelter or who don't have adequate clothing to protect them from frostbite," he said.

"We do see people who have just been out shovelling or doing work in an external environment and just not realizing how cold their extremities have gotten because at one point in time the pain of being cold is replaced by a numbness and that's when the frostbite kicks in."

Dr. Eddy Lang is department head of emergency medicine in the Calgary zone.
Dr. Eddy Lang is department head of emergency medicine in the Calgary zone.

Dr. Eddy Lang is department head of emergency medicine in the Calgary zone. (Submitted by Dr. Eddy Lang)

Hypothermia — or very low body temperature — is a big concern, too.

"That is a recipe that's usually involving substance use. So whether it be alcohol or other substances, when people begin to lose awareness that they are in the very cold environment and are not processing the information … they're in trouble," Lang said.

"They may not be shivering normally, they can actually get very cold without even realizing it."

The Alberta Health Services website states it's important to recognize the signs early and seek medical attention.

"Early hypothermia may manifest as profound shivering; moderate hypothermic patients may act inappropriately, stumbling, mumbling, and fumbling, as their body temperature continues to drop, resulting in severe hypothermia," it reads.

"Left untreated, severe hypothermia may progress to unconsciousness or death."

Slips and falls often lead to more ER trips during cold snaps, too, for those who do venture outdoors, Lang said.

According to Alberta Health Services, EMS crews in the province dealt with 100 cold-related calls between Jan. 9 and midday on Jan. 15.

This week, calls have settled down. Between Monday at noon and Friday at 11a.m., EMS responded to 12 cold-related concerns.