Frostbite, hypothermia, overexertion and falls are the most common cold-weather health hazards. Below are important tips and information for staying safe this winter.
Frostbite and Hypothermia
Frostbite is when parts of the body are injured by exposure to extreme cold, typically affecting the nose, fingers or toes. Hypothermia is when the overall body temperature becomes dangerously low.
Cold temperatures, wind, rain, and even sweat cool your skin and pull heat away from your body. In cold weather, your body tries to keep a warm inner (core) temperature to protect your vital organs. It does this by slowing blood circulation in your face, arms, hands, legs, and feet. The skin and tissues in these areas becomes colder. This puts you at risk for frostbite.
If your core body temperature drops just a few degrees, hypothermia will set in. With even mild hypothermia, your brain and body do not work as well. Severe hypothermia can lead to death.
Dress in Layers
They key to staying safe in the cold is to wear several layers of clothing. Wear the right shoes and clothing that will keep your body heat trapped inside your clothes and protect you from cold air, wind, snow, or rain.
You may need several layers of clothing in cold weather:
- An inner layer that wicks sweat away from the skin. It can be lightweight wool, polyester, or polypropylene (polypro). Never wear cotton in cold weather, including your underwear. Cotton absorbs moisture and keeps it next to your skin, making you cold.
- Middle layers that insulate and keep heat in. They can be polyester fleece, wool, microfiber insulation, or down. Depending on your activity, you may need a couple of insulating layers.
- An outer layer that repels wind, snow, and rain. Try to choose a fabric that is both breathable and rain and wind proof. If your outer layer is not also breathable, sweat can build up and make you cold.
You also need to protect your hands, feet, neck, and face. Depending on your activity, you may need the following:
- Warm hat
- Face mask
- Scarf or neck warmer
- Mittens or gloves (mittens tend to be warmer)
- Wool or polypro socks
- Warm, waterproof shoes or boots
The key with all of your layers is to take them off as you warm up and add them back as you cool down. If you wear too much while exercising, you will sweat a lot, which can make you colder.
Get Plenty of Food and Fluids
You need both food and fluids to fuel your body and keep you warm. If you skimp on either, you increase your risk for cold weather injuries such as hypothermia and frostbite.
Eating foods with carbohydrates gives you quick energy. If you are only out for a short time, you may want to carry a snack bar to keep your energy going. If you are out all day skiing, hiking, or working, be sure to bring food with protein and fat as well to fuel you over many hours.
Drink plenty of fluids before and during activities in the cold. You may not feel as thirsty in cold weather, but you still lose fluids through your sweat and when you breathe.
Watch for Early Signs of Frostbite and Hypothermia
Be aware of the early signs of cold weather injuries. Frostbite and hypothermia can occur at the same time.
The early stage of frostbite is called frostnip. Signs include:
- Red and cold skin; skin may start to turn white, but is still soft
- Prickling and numbness
- Tingling and/or stinging
Early warning signs of hypothermia include:
- Feeling cold
- The "Umbles:" stumbles, bumbles, grumbles, and mumbles. These are signs that cold is affecting your body and brain.
To prevent more serious problems, take action as soon as you notice early signs of frostbite or hypothermia.
- Get out of the cold, wind, rain, or snow if possible.
- Add warm layers of clothing.
- Eat carbohydrates.
- Drink fluids.
- Move your body to help warm your core. Do jumping jacks or flap your arms.
- Warm up any area with frostnip. Remove tight jewelry or clothing. Place cold fingers in your armpits, or warm a cold nose or cheek with the palm of your warm hand. DO NOT rub.
When to Call the Doctor
You should call your health care provider or get medical help right away if you or someone in your party:
- Does not get better or gets worse after attempting to warm up or to rewarm frostnip.
- Has frostbite. NEVER rewarm frostbite on your own. It can be very painful and damaging.
- Shows signs of hypothermia
People are at higher risk for heart attack and stroke in the winter than other seasons. One theory is that lower temperatures cause blood vessels to constrict. Also, being ill with the flu can put a strain on the heart for some time after infection, and certain over-the-counter cold and flu medications can raise blood pressure. People are also less active overall in winter, and then when they go outside (to shovel snow, for example), they do too much too quickly.
Also, muscle strains and overuse are common. A shovel-full of snow is heavy, and your body may not be conditioned for shoveling.
Pace yourself outside. Don’t do too much at once. And if you are in poor health, call a family member or friend to clear your drive or dig out your car. Or hire a reliable service to add you to their route for each snowfall. Saving some time or money isn’t worth an injury or heart attack.
Falls on snow and ice are the leading cause of winter-weather-related visits to the emergency department. Broken bones are serious, especially among seniors. Sadly, these falls are mostly preventable. So often people who pride themselves on being independent take a fall just going out to get the mail or when leaving the house to pick up groceries or medications.
If you know someone who has no business getting out in bad weather, call them and tell them you’ll be bringing in their mail for them, and will pick up anything they need from the store.
For everyone, there are a few tips for walking safely in icy or snowy conditions. As you walk, take very small steps and “shuffle” along. Try and keep your weight centered above the foot planted on the ground. And keep your hands free and out of your pockets. Your arms need to be free for balance, and to help catch yourself if you fall.
Here are some additional tips from the Snow & Ice Management Association, on www.sima.org:
- Avoid taking shortcuts. Shortcuts are a good idea if you are in a hurry, but may be a bad idea if there is snow and ice on the ground. A shortcut path may be treacherous because it is likely to be located where snow and ice removal is not possible.
- Be careful when you shift your weight. When stepping off a curb or getting into a car, be careful since shifting your weight may cause an imbalance and result in a fall.
- Enter a building carefully. When you get to your destination such as school, work, shopping center, etc., be sure to look at the floor as you enter the building. The floor may be wet with melted snow and ice.
- Walk steps slowly. When walking down steps, be sure to grip handrails firmly and plant your feet securely on each step.
- Anticipate ice. Be wary of thin sheets of ice that may appear as wet pavement (black ice). Often ice will appear in the morning, in shady spots or where the sun shines during the day and melted snow refreezes at night.
- Plan ahead. While walking on snow or ice on sidewalks or in parking lots, walk consciously. Instead of looking down, look up and see where your feet will move next to anticipate ice or an uneven surface. Occasionally scan from left to right to ensure you are not in the way of vehicles or other hazards.
- Wear proper footwear. Proper footwear should place the entire foot on the surface of the ground and have visible treads. Avoid a smooth sole and opt for a heavy treaded shoe with a flat bottom.
- Look up. Be careful about what you walk under. Injuries also can result from falling snow/ice as it blows, melts, or breaks away from awnings, buildings, etc.
In summary, when it comes to staying safe in winter weather, bundle up, don’t try to do too much at once and help others.