Cold winter weather can be fun if you’re on the slopes or sitting around a fire sipping hot cocoa, but severe cold and icy conditions are also dangerous. Make sure you are prepared for winter’s harsh conditions, so you can avoid a trip to the emergency department
"Most winter weather safety is about prevention, like dressing warmly and in layers," explained William Brady, MD, an emergency physician at Kettering Health Network. "Most winter weather emergencies are from exposure and being unprepared."
Most cold weather injuries are environmental. Frostbite most commonly occurs on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin—areas most often exposed to the elements. It happens when the skin and underlying tissue freeze, first becoming cold and red, then numb, and finally, hard and pale. While exposed areas are most vulnerable, even skin covered by gloves or other clothing can experience frostbite if exposed to extreme cold for too long.
"Small capillary areas of the body like your ears start trying to conserve heat during the winter cold, so they shut down and send that blood to the heart to help maintain the body's overall temperature," said Dr. Brady. "The best things to do are to limit exposure time as much as possible and be sure to cover those areas, particularly your hands and face, to prevent frostbite."
Pay attention to the weather conditions and dress accordingly. When the air temperature is very low, you need to protect any exposed areas such as your ears, nose, lips and face.
Don’t overdo it
Overexertion is also a concern in the winter months. Every year, emergency centers are full of patients who have been shoveling out the driveway and suddenly overcome with chest pain, shortness of breath, and other symptoms of exhaustion or even a cardiac event. Our bodies are always trying to conserve heat, and the added exertion puts more stress on the heart and lungs in the harsh cold.
Overexerting yourself doesn't have to come from hard work. You can become severely fatigued or put great strain on your heart even doing something fun like sledding or other outdoor winter sports. Dr. Brady said, "Listen to your body, and that's especially important to those with heart or lung problems. If you get tired, stop. Don't overdo it. Your body will tell you when it needs to rest."
If, while out in the cold, you start to feel severely fatigued or get that "worn out" sensation, it's time to take a break. Get out of the weather and let your body recover before you continue. "You have to get warmer and let your physiology get back to normal," said Dr. Brady. "Recover indoors for a while before continuing outdoor activities."
However, if you experience any type of chest pain, severe headache, or weakness in the extremities, don't wait until they go away. Call 911 or have someone bring you to the nearest emergency center immediately.
Watch out for changes in weather
Make certain you carry gloves, a warm coat, hat, and blanket in case of emergencies. Pay attention to the weather forecasts, and in extreme weather conditions, be sure you have all your prescriptions filled and up to date in case of a snow emergency.
Be careful when navigating icy sidewalks and streets., as slips and falls can also send you to the emergency center. Wear warm shoes with winter tread to avoid something as simple as twisting an ankle or as serious as a broken arm or back injury.
Know where to go
When the unexpected happens, it’s important to know where to go for care. Click here to find a list of Kettering Health Network emergency center locations.
If an emergency is happening, call 911.