Weathering Winter’s Effects

Old man winter hasn’t hit hard yet, but when wind chill levels hit minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in 30 minutes or less. Frostbite, or frozen body tissue, can cause a loss of feeling and color in the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. Redness or pain in any skin area could be a sign that you have frostbite.

Hypothermia happens when your normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees falls below 95 degrees often due to being outside for too long. However, according to Josh McClain, M.D., emergency department physician with Meritus Medical Center, hypothermia can also affect people who live in improperly heated homes.

Signs of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, drowsiness, confusion and loss of consciousness. Both frostbite and hypothermia can happen before you know it and the young and elderly are especially vulnerable. With both conditions, it’s important to seek medical attention right away.

Braving the elements

If you’re braving the elements, dress in layers: a first layer of synthetic, moisture-wicking material; a second layer of fleece or wool for insulation; and a waterproof, breathable outer layer. Don’t forget to wear a hat and mittens or gloves.

Once the snow falls, it’s time to shovel, but people who don’t exercise regularly or those with heart conditions need to be especially cautious of snow shoveling. “For some people, the first snow storm is their first workout of the year,” says Dr. McClain. “Go to the emergency department right away if you experience chest pains or shortness of breath as it may be a sign of a heart attack.”

During a snow storm, Dr. McClain recommends shoveling early and often and pushing versus lifting snow. If you must lift the snow, squat with your legs bent, feet apart and lift with your legs—never bend at the waist or rotate your hips to throw snow behind you.

Most importantly, pace yourself and limit snow-shoveling sessions to under 60 minutes.

And even though it’s cold outside, drink plenty of water before and after shoveling to avoid dehydration.

Finally, wear rubber-soled boots when trekking on snowy and icy surfaces. Keep your hands out of your pockets (you need your arms for balance) and take short, shuffling steps on icy areas.

Preparing the homestead

There’s nothing cozier than a roaring fire. If you use your fireplace regularly, have your chimney inspected and cleaned every year. If you must use a space heater, make sure the unit is Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) certified, not too large for the space you’re heating and positioned away from foot traffic. Portable heating devices, says Dr. McClain, can be a source of carbon monoxide poisoning so make sure your home has a carbon monoxide detector and watch for warning signs such as headache and nausea.

While candles add ambiance to a cold winter’s night, they fall under the fire hazard category. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, more than 50 percent of candle fires start because a candle is placed too close to something that might burn, like a mattress, curtain, blanket or piece of furniture. Consider using battery operated candles, but if you must use a candle, place it in a metal, glass or ceramic holder and find a spot where it cannot be tipped or knocked over.

Be it old man winter or Jack Frost, the worst of our weather may be right around the corner so be prepared.