The mild start to the winter has passed. The first snowstorms of the season have moved through, and we’ve felt extreme cold temperatures as well. Nathan Larsen, M.D., an Emergency Medicine Physician at ThedaCare Medical Center-Waupaca and New London, says a combination of awareness, preparation and smart practices is essential to staying healthy and injury-free throughout the rest of the season.
Here are some chilling U.S. statistics from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) to consider:
- Harsh winter weather is more than twice as deadly as summer heat.
- One million people are injured from slips and falls on ice and snow every year, with some 17,000 of those falls being fatal.
- About 1,200 residents die each year from exposure to excessive cold weather conditions, hypothermia, or both.
- More than 400 people die annually from accidental, non-fire related carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.
“Winter brings with it a unique set of potential hazards, from shoveling snow and icy sidewalks to sub-zero temperatures that could lead to frostbite,” said Dr. Larsen. “There are ways you can minimize your risk of injury and trips to urgent care and the emergency department.”
Dr. Larsen offered some guidance to help keep people safe during the winter.
Frostbite and Cold Exposure
Exposure to extreme cold can lead to serious conditions such as frostbite and hypothermia. Here are some ways to protect yourself:
- Dress in layers. Consider wearing a moisture-wicking base layer, an insulating middle layer, and a waterproof outer layer.
- Protect extremities. Frostbite is most common on the nose, ears, fingers, and toes. To avoid the condition, wear gloves, insulated boots, a scarf or facemask, and a hat.
Winter storms often demand significant effort in clearing snow from driveways and sidewalks. Proper technique is key to avoiding injuries, including:
- Warm up. Before scooping up the first shovelful of snow, take a few minutes to warm up your muscles. Gentle stretching can help prepare your body for the physical activity and reduce the risk of back or shoulder strains.
- Dress for the climate. Wearing a hat, gloves, and scarf can prevent heat loss through your head and extremities, keeping you warm in the cold.
- Use proper shoveling technique. When shoveling, push the snow instead of lifting it whenever possible. If you must lift, bend from your knees and use your legs instead of bending from your back.
- Pay special attention when snow-blowing. Exercise caution with snowblowers to avoid lacerations and other injuries. Never attempt to clear clogs with the machine running.
- Take care with heart conditions. Shoveling and snow-blowing require cardiovascular exertion. If you experience chest pain or shortness of breath, call 911.
Changing your gait and wearing proper footwear can help prevent slips and falls. Dr. Larsen also recommends:
- Walk like a penguin. Take short, shuffling steps with your feet slightly pointed outward – like a penguin – which provides better stability on icy surfaces.
- Wear proper footwear. Choose shoes or boots with good traction. Slip-resistant soles can help reduce the risk of falling.
Winter driving requires extra caution to avoid accidents on slippery roads. People should:
- Check road conditions. Stay informed about weather and road conditions before heading out. Delay travel if conditions are hazardous, or consider alternative routes.
- Slow down.
- Collect emergency supplies. Keep an emergency kit in your car, which includes blankets, a flashlight, extra batteries, water, and non-perishable snacks. In the event of a breakdown, these supplies can be crucial while waiting for assistance. The CDC offers ways to assemble emergency supply kits for your home and vehicle.
- Creating a warm indoor environment is essential for your health during the cold-weather months.
- Insulate windows and doors. Seal drafts with weather-stripping and caulking to keep cold air out. This not only enhances comfort, it can also help save on heating costs.
- Maintain the furnace. Schedule professional inspections and maintenance for your heating system to ensure efficient operation throughout winter and to avoid carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Each year, more than 400 people die from accidental, non-fire-related CO poisoning, according to the CDC. Common CO poisoning symptoms include headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea/vomiting, shortness of breath, confusion, blurred vision, drowsiness, loss of muscle control, and loss of consciousness.
- Obtain emergency heat sources. Have alternative heat sources like a generator or space heater available in case of a power outage. Follow safety guidelines to prevent fire hazards.
“Winter safety ultimately involves prioritizing ways to protect you and your family from potential injuries and emergencies,” said Dr. Larsen. “Following these guidelines can help you enjoy a winter full of warmth and well-being as you embrace the beauty of the season.”