Stay Safe in Winter Weather

December 2, 2011

With the arrival of freezing temperatures and snow in the forecast, local health officials are reminding people to take precautions as they brave the cold when they go outside to work or play.

Whether you are headed to a Packers’ game, a day of skiing, or just out to shovel snow, you need to protect you body from prolonged exposure to the cold, says Daniel Sutton, MD, with ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca.

“If you are out in the cold for a long time, you need to watch out for hypothermia,” said Dr. Sutton. “Significant shivering can be a sign of hypothermia, along with feeling tired, drowsy or confused.”

Hypothermia, or an abnormally low body temperature, sets in when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. It is most likely at very cold temperatures but can occur even at cool temperatures when someone becomes chilled from rain or sweat. When someone’s temperature drops below 95 degrees, it is considered a medical emergency.

Prevention is the best strategy, said Dr. Sutton, and people should protect themselves by dressing in layers and always wear a hat and mittens or gloves.

“You should dress in three layers, starting with a wicking layer – like long underwear – that draws moisture away from your body,” he said. “The second layer should be an insulating layer, like wool, which keeps you warm. The third layer – the shell layer –protects you from wind, rain or snow.”

In addition to hypothermia, extremely cold weather can also leave people vulnerable to frostbite. Frostbite occurs when skin and underlying tissue freeze. Frostbite typically affects the extremities and the more exposed areas of your body, including fingers and toes, cheeks, ears, nose and chin, said Erica Stoeger, a nurse practitioner with ThedaCare Physicians-New London.

“Redness or pain on any skin area may be the beginning of frostbite,” said Stoeger. If you heed this warning sign and get out of the cold, you may feel pain and tingling as the skin warms.

If exposure continues, however, the reddened skin can turn white or grayish yellow as severe frostbite sets in, she said.

“The skin will feel unusually firm or waxy,” Stoeger said. “A victim of frostbite is often unaware of it, unless someone points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.” 

If someone is showing signs of hypothermia or frostbite, get inside to a warm room or shelter. For hypothermia, warm the center of the body first, using an electric blanket, for example, Dr. Sutton said. Warm beverages can also help increase body temperature, he added.

“Alcohol should definitely be avoided,” he said. “It’s a myth that alcohol warms you from the inside.”

For those showing signs of frostbite, do not rub or massage the area, and don’t warm up over a stove, fireplace or radiator, Dr. Sutton warned.

“When your skin is numb, you could burn yourself and not realize it,” he said. “You can use warm – not hot – water to warm up the affected area.”

Skin-to-skin contact, such as warming frostbitten fingers in the heat of an armpit can also help. If you suspect serious frostbite, seek medical care.

Another common source of winter-related injuries is shoveling snow, Dr. Sutton said. The combination of cold weather and over-exerting can put extra strain on the back and heart.

“If you aren’t in great shape, those short bursts of exercise can be hard on the body and a significant risk factor for bringing on heart attacks,” Dr. Sutton said.  Those with heart disease or high blood pressure are at greatest risk.

“To avoid back strain, bend at the knees as opposed to the waist, and keep the shovel close to your body,” he said. “And take frequent breaks.”

And finally, be careful walking on ice, added Dr. Sutton.

“Be aware that any time the temperature is below freezing, any condensation can create slippery driveways and sidewalks,” he said. “Walk more cautiously, keep your hands out of your pockets, and take smaller steps.”

The elderly, in particular, should be extra cautious in winter weather, Stoeger said.

“Seniors are not only at risk for broken bones from falls on ice and breathing problems caused by cold air, but they are also at greater risk for hypothermia, frostbite and strain on the back and heart,” she said.