The mild start to winter may have tricked you. But don’t forget, the season brings with it a unique set of potential hazards. From shoveling snow to driving on icy roads to simply stepping outside for a breath of fresh air, winter requires a special set of precautions.
According to a Centers for Disease Control & Prevention statistics report, more than 1,200 U.S. residents die each year from exposure to excessive cold weather conditions, hypothermia, or a combination thereof. Prioritizing winter safety may not only reduce this death rate but also prevent trips to urgent care or the emergency room.
Frostbite and cold exposure
Exposure to extreme cold can lead to serious conditions such as frostbite and hypothermia.
“Layering clothing is an important way to prevent these potentially life-threatening health conditions,” Dr. Larsen says. “This technique helps trap body heat, keeping you warm.”
- 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.
“One of the most common issues we see in the emergency room during winter is back injuries related to shoveling, so your approach to it can make all the difference,” Dr. Larsen says.
- 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.
- Clothe 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. “We see finger amputations from snowblowers every year,” Dr. Larsen says.
- Take care with heart conditions. Shoveling and snow-blowing require cardiovascular exertion. If you experience chest pain or shortness of breath, call 911.
Icy sidewalks can turn a simple stroll into a dangerous endeavor.
“Changing your gait and wearing proper footwear will help prevent slips and falls,” Dr. Larsen says.
- 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.
- 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. Speed can kill. This is true any time, but especially during bad weather.
- 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 weatherstripping and caulking to keep cold air out. This not only enhances comfort but also helps 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.
Take care this winter so you can enjoy the season to its fullest.
“Following safety tips can help ensure your winter remains full of warmth and well-being,” Dr. Larsen says.