Across our nation temperatures are being replaced with below-average readings – as much as 20 to 30 degrees colder than average – and colder storm weather is forecasted into the new year. Jack Frost has arrived for the holidays to nip at our fingers, nose, toes, homes, vehicles and those we love (including our pets). Medical physicians are preparing to see cold related cases from frostbite, hypothermia to carbon monoxide poisoning as well as the seasonal influenza. Here are some steps to help you and yours to stay healthy and safe in our cold (ice, snow and chilly) weather.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Staying Healthy & Safe in Cold Weather
Preparing Ourselves: Prevent Attacks of the Cold – Frostbite, Hypothermia and Overexertion
Overall, it is important to bundle up for warmth in the cold with layers that includes covering your entire body – torso, legs, feet, hands, neck, ears and entire head included.
Frostbite is injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. Exposure to cold weather conditions — especially when there is a wind chill factor — is the most likely cause and know too, you can get it in just minutes. Frostbite can also result from direct contact with ice, freezing metals, and very cold liquids.
Hypothermia describes dangerously low body temperatures that result from our body losing heat faster than it produces it. Normally, our body maintains a temperature of 98.6oF (37oC). Hypothermia is typically seen when the temperature drops to below 95oF (35oC).
Some tips to prevent frostbite and hypothermia include:
• Limiting time outdoors to less than 10 minutes, whenever possible
• Warming our body from the inside with hot liquids (e.g. soups, tea, coffee)
• And while said before, it bears repeating: Dressing appropriately—donning multiple layers of loose clothing and covering ears, head, face, hands and feet
• Keeping dry with water repellant items and removing wet clothing immediately. And pay special attention to snow or other precipitation getting under our sleeves or into our boots.
Preparing Our Homes:
There are a number of simple steps that we can take to make our homes warmer and conserve heat.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning is near the top of the list of health concerns this time of year–whether it’s in your home due to a faulty heater, or in your garage after running the car too long. It’s not like natural gas where you can smell (because there’s an odor), carbon monoxide is odorless. You can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, but it can kill you in a matter of minutes
Be prepared with carbon monoxide (CO) detectors and check them; these alarms can alert us to the presence of CO. Also, be familiar with carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms—headaches, nausea, and confusion—and seek medical attention immediately, if suspected. Experts recommend that alarm function be checked monthly and batteries changed every six months. And, too, detectors should be placed on every floor of the home, near every sleeping area, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
- Replace or clean air (furnace) filters for HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) units. Dirty filters decrease the quality of indoor air we are breathing. This can be particularly harmful for those who suffer from lung conditions such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema. And, too, as dirt accumulates, it impedes airflow and the motor must work harder, thereby increasing energy consumption. Experts recommend changing air filters every month during the winter and summer—when your HVAC gets the most use. In addition to improving the quality of air that you breath, research shows that it can save between 5 to 15 percent in energy costs.
- Never use anything that’s meant to be outdoors, indoors, because there’s no venting in your house and those deadly gases from a gas grill or charcoal grill or some sort of gas heater is just going to collect in your home
Preparing Our Vehicles
Having your car breakdown in frigid temperatures or snowy or blizzard-like weather poses dangerous risks
- Get a car check-up. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends getting our battery, cooling system, windshield wipers and defrosters, radiator, and tires checked as cold weather falls upon us.
- When planning any travel, keep the gas tank more than half-full, be aware of current and forecast weather conditions, and consider informing a friend or relative of the proposed route and expected time of arrival.
- Prepare a winter emergency kit in the event you get stranded. Travel Responsibly, Informed & Protected (TRIP) advises having items that warm you up and decrease your risk for hypothermia and frostbite; can get your vehicle back on the road; and keep you hydrated, nourished and help signal for assistance if stranded. These include blankets, coats, gloves, water, food, booster cables, flares, flashlights, extra cell phone batteries or charger, first-aid kit and tire pump.
- Be aware too that warming a car in the garage poses danger even with an open door — the carbon monoxide coming out of that vehicle can go into your house if you have an attached garage. And even if the garage is not attached to your house, it can cause problems if the carbon monoxide from the running car is not escaping.
Prepare to Keep a Watch Out: Cold, Winds and Ice
Ice on the pavement and sidewalks are notorious for causing slips and falls. The vast majority of the time, the injury is minor, causing respectable bruising and lingering discomfort for several hours or days. However, slips and falls can result in broken bones, bleeding into the brain, and even death. Tips to decrease this from happening include: avoiding areas where snow or ice removal is incomplete; walking slowly or around icy ground; selecting flat, rubber sole footwear for improved traction; taking small steps to keep the center of balance underneath you; utilizing handrails whenever possible, and, if not, keeping both hands free for balance; and sprinkling salt, cat litter, or sand on icy patches on walkways and in the driveway.
Strenuous activities in cold or freezing temperatures–particularly in those with heart disease or risk factors for heart disease–can cause a heart attack. This is because the cold constricts arteries that deliver blood and oxygen to our heart. In doing so, it elevates blood pressures. When compounded with physical exertion that also elevates blood pressure, the increased amount of work demanded of the heart to pump blood can cause a heart attack.
Protecting Our Pets
Cold and wet can pose serious risks for our pets. The expert advice is to not leave our pets outside and in fact, to keep them inside when the weather turns cold (except for a shorter escorted walk). Our pet’s tolerance to the cold weather can vary based upon the breed, coat, body fat, age and overall health. It may be necessary to shorten the length of our dog’s walk. And make sure to check our dog’s paws for signs of cold-weather injury or salt damage—cracked pads or bleeding. Despite having a furry coat, they, too, are vulnerable to hypothermia. Birds must be kept away from breezy doorways, windows and halls. Larger animals such as horses, should be provided adequate, warm shelter, and unfrozen water to drink. If you have not already–whether your pet is tiny or large–plan to talk to your vet about the best cold weather care for your pet.
Being prepared and weather-wise is essential as we meet our wintery-cold weather. And while the danger from winter weather varies across the country, nearly all Americans, regardless of where they live, are likely to face some type of severe winter weather. Even snowbirds seeking milder winters can be shocked by a 20 or 30 degree dip in temperature. Stay tuned to your local weather – and with proper planning and a watchful eye you can help ensure to be healthy and safe, even as Old Man Winter joins Jack Frost to come with cold blasts nipping at your nose.
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.