If you’re living somewhere on the East Coast, you know that we got a lot of snow this past weekend. I was amazed waking up Saturday to see just how much had fallen. I’ve always loved how snow can transform the landscape overnight and it was wonderful to get outside and wander around with my family. With that said, there can be a dark side to big snowfalls. Icy sidewalks and roads and colder than usual can pose a real danger to people trying to get around during the winter months. I want to take a few moments to remind you of the health dangers present during the wintertime so you can keep yourself safe while enjoying the best of what the winter has to offer.
Dress for Success
Normally that motto applies to job interviews, but it couldn’t be more important when it comes to severe winter weather. In this case, you’ll want to be wearing several warm layers that will allow you to adapt easily to being inside where it’s warm and outside where it’s cold. To start off, you want to have the layer that’s closest to your skin, like an undershirt for example, be a material that dries fast and wicks away moisture, similar to what you might look for in a sports shirt. When you work up a sweat walking through the snow or shivering in the cold, it doesn’t evaporate the way it does in the heat. Instead, it sits against your skin and makes you even colder when you stop moving. Cotton is the biggest offender in this situation. A wicking material will get this sweat away from your skin and help to insulate you when your body starts to cool down.
The outer layer is also important. Wearing something that will cut the wind will help prevent the cold air from drawing away the pocket of warm air your body creates around itself. It doesn’t matter how many warm layers you have underneath if you don’t have a wind-breaking outer layer. Finally, think carefully about what you put on your feet, hands, and head. Your fingers, toes, ears, and face are the most likely to be affected by frostbite if it’s really cold out. Mittens are better than gloves since they hold your fingers together, which helps keep them warm. Wear a nice pair of thick socks with boots that won’t let in water. Finally, wear a hat that covers your ears and a scarf for your face if it’s cold enough.
The Dangers of Frostbite
Most people have heard of frostbite, but few know exactly what it is, what the signs are, or what to do if it shows up. Frostbite happens when parts of our body are exposed to cold so extreme that the blood pumping through them isn’t enough to stay warm. They start to cool and then eventually freeze. The skin can turn red or start to go a pale, waxy color and you often lose feeling in the area. If you think you or someone you know has frostbite, the most important thing to do is get to a warm place where you can avoid getting colder and start to thaw frostbitten areas. Don’t rub the areas to warm them, since this can damage the tissues. Instead, use warm water for 15 to 30 minutes. Avoid direct heat from a heating pad or heater since the lack of sensation can lead to accidental burns. Finally, if you think frostbite has occurred, even if it’s mild, you should see a doctor immediately.
Staying Safe in Your Car
When you have the heat blasting, your car might seem like one of the best places to be during the winter months, but road conditions can turn driving deadly, even if you’re experienced in cold weather driving. Ice often forms on the road when snow is around because the sun melts it and then it refreezes as almost invisible black ice on the road. Snow itself can also make the roads incredibly slippery if you don’t have the right tires. Check the weather before you head out and get a sense of what road conditions are going to be like. If the weather is severe, avoid driving altogether if you can and be extremely cautious if you do have to go out.
On top of that, it’s always important to have a cold-weather emergency kit in your car. You’ll need this if you happen to get stranded for whatever reason. You should have everything you would need to stay warm for several hours without the help of the car’s engine. Thick blankets are a must and you should also keep some spare food and water depending on where you live. Because of the risk of frostbite and hypothermia, the dangers of getting stranded in your car in the winter are much worse than during the warmer months.
Shoveling the Right Way
I’ve sung the praises of snow shoveling in the past as a great way to get some exercise outdoors, but the intensity of heavy snow lifting isn’t for everyone. Technique is key when you’re shoveling snow, and if you’re not careful to keep your back straight and do a proper squat, you can put your back at risk. If you’re heading out to shovel the driveway, do a short warm-up inside to get your muscles and heart ready for the exercise.
Remember, don’t be a hero. Shovel small amounts of snow so that you minimize the weight you lift with each scoop.
Those who have a heart condition may want to give shoveling a pass in favor of some hired help. This is especially the case if you don’t exercise regularly. Shoveling snow can put a dangerous strain on your heart if you’re already predisposed to heart issues. If you start to feel pain or discomfort in your shoulders, neck, or chest, you should stop immediately. A snow blower is another option for people in this situation.
Finally, avoid cigarettes and alcohol when shoveling. Alcohol might seem like a great way to get your body warm and the blood flowing, but it can actually make it harder for your body to stay warm out in the cold and can lead to hypothermia. Alcohol forces blood toward the skin, which means you lose heat much faster without noticing. That can put you at significant danger for hypothermia. Smoking is also a bad idea before shoveling since it adds to the artery-shrinking effect of the cold weather. That could make it easier for you to end up with frostbite or worsen heart issues you already have.
Hand Washing Helps
While it might not be the first thing to come to mind, hand washing is key during the cold winter months. That’s because the flu virus is out and about much more during the cold weather, making you much more likely to pick it up from others. Washing your hands regularly with warm, soapy water is the best way to keep this nasty bug away from your system (after the flu shot, that is) and has the added benefit of getting some heat into your cold fingers.
I hope I haven’t scared you too much! I truly think the winter is a great time of the year as long as you take the right precautions. Be careful, be safe, and enjoy the winter weather.