11 Ways Winter Can Kill You (Seriously)
Cold weather is more dangerous than you think—here's how to stay safe
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Winter woes you need to know
There are a handful of reasons to love winter: skiing and snowboarding, hot tea, the holiday season, and a light sprinkling of snow are just a few. But there are also plenty of not-so-great things about the winter—and some might even put you in harm’s way. In fact, cold weather causes 17 times as many deaths as hot weather, according to a 2015 study of 13 countries, leading to hypothermia, frostnip and frostbite, heart and breathing risks, and ice-related risks of falling, among other dangers. Here’s how to stay safe.
Shovel right to protect your heart
People with underlying heart or circulatory disease are at increased risk of trouble when the temperature takes a dip because cold weather can put more stress on your ticker. “Your body is smart, and when it senses cold it protects your core by decreasing blood flow to your extremities,” says Dan Weinstein, MD, Medical Director of the University of Vermont Medical Center Urgent Care and Assistant Professor at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. This process, called peripheral vasoconstriction, may increase your blood pressure and the work that your heart needs to do to pump blood. “If you add physical exertion such as shoveling into the mix that can cause additional work for the heart.” Here’s what cardiologists want you to know about shoveling snow.
Use the three-feet rule to heat your home
When the mercury drops below even 50 degrees, the space heaters come out of deep storage. And sometimes, they get a little too hot, sparking devastating home fires. Fixed and portable space heaters are involved in 74 percent of fire-related deaths, according to the American Red Cross. When using a space heater, make sure to place it on a hard, level surface, and keep anything flammable, such as paper, clothing, bedding, rugs, or curtains, at least three feet away, according to guidelines from the American Red Cross. Always turn the heater off before leaving the room or going to bed. And never use a stove or oven to heat the home because of the risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning, the Red Cross warns. Candles are a fire hazard too. If you’re a fan of candlelight in the dark winter months, consider using new Lucid liquid paraffin candles that will self-extinguish when they tip, instead of spreading their flame.
Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning
Trying to keep warm in a closed-up house could lead to risky practices. “Keep grills, camp stoves, and generators out of the house, basement, and garage,” warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Generators should be placed at least 20 feet from the house. If the CO detector (which should get fresh batteries twice a year) does go off, leave the house immediately and call 911. In addition, never run a vehicle inside an attached garage, says the National Safety Council.
Don’t let ice trip you up
Ice, especially when it forms with cycles of thawing followed by cold, frequently causes unexpected falls, Dr. Weinstein says. “Often the ice is particularly difficult to see because it’s covered in snow, or it’s a type of very clear ice that is difficult to tell is coating a surface, known as ‘black ice’ in Vermont.” In addition, anyone having trouble with balance, such as the elderly or those with certain neurologic conditions, should take extra precautions. Weinstein advises using footwear with good, textured soles (even adding gear to your boots and shoes to increase traction), and when walking, keeping your center of gravity over your feet. At home, consider sprinkling a non-salt ice-melting product such as Safe Paw Ice Melter, which is safe for animals and children, on your porch and walkway. For driveways, sidewalks, and steps, try Traction Magic, an environmentally safe way to prevent slips and falls—and even keep tires from slipping, preventing car accidents. (Here’s exactly what you should do if someone collapses.)
Winter roads can create dangerous driving conditions, but the motorist group AAA says there are a number of ways to increase your chance of safe travels. For starters, be prepared by checking the weather before leaving the house, keeping your gas tank at least half full at all times, and making sure basic maintenance is up to date—for example, keeping tires properly inflated. If you find yourself driving in precarious conditions, AAA says a few rules can help prevent accidents, like avoiding cruise control on slippery surfaces, accelerating and decelerating slowly, and increasing your following distance to 8 to 10 seconds, so if the car in front of you swerves, skids or crashes, you have enough time to adjust your course to steer clear of it.
Protect the vulnerable
Tiny tots and senior citizens could be at greater risk when exposed to temperature extremes. “The very young have increased surface area compared to their overall volume and this can lead to increased heat loss,” says Dr. Weinstein. “Elderly people often have decreased reserves to adapt to the cold. They tend to have less of a fat layer below the skin to help stay warm.” In addition, those with certain autoimmune conditions, such as Raynaud’s, may be at increased risk of cold-related problems. “For some people with asthma, cold weather may trigger symptoms,” Dr. Weinstein adds. “If you have cold-induced asthma, be sure to bring your rescue inhaler. Breathing through a bandana or scarf may help with prevention.” (Here are 50 ways to avoid catching a cold this season.)
A white or gray-ish yellow area of skin, numbness, or skin that feels abnormally firm or waxy are all signs of frostbite, which you may not be able to detect yourself because the frozen tissues have lost sensation, says the CDC. While you should ideally seek medical care immediately, if you can’t, get into a warm room, avoid walking on or rubbing frostbitten areas of the body (which can increase damage), immerse the affected area in water that is warm but not hot, and don’t attempt to warm the body with other heating devices such as a radiator because the numb tissue could easily burn. These steps, however, are not substitutes for medical attention, which should be sought as soon as possible. Learn more about the first aid moves that could save fingers and toes from frostbite. To help prevent your digits from getting so cold in the first place, consider carrying portable hand warmers, like HotHands Hand Warmers by Uline, when you know you’ll be outdoors for an hour or more.
Hold off hypothermia
When exposed to cold, the body loses heat faster than it can replace it, and prolonged exposure exhausts your body’s stored energy, says the CDC. The resulting drop in temperature can affect the brain, leaving victims unable to think or move normally, which puts them in increased danger. Hypothermia often strikes older adults who lack adequate heat, clothing or food, babies who sleep in cold bedrooms, people who remain outside for extended periods such as the homeless and outdoor workers, or people who use alcohol or illicit drugs. Signs of hypothermia in adults include shivering, confusion, fumbling hands, memory problems, slurred speech, and drowsiness, according to the CDC. Signs in infants include bright red, cold skin and very low energy. If you notice these signs, and the person’s temperature falls below 95 degrees, seek medical attention right away. If care is unavailable, get the victim to a warm area, remove any wet clothing, warm the center of the body using an electric blanket or skin-to-skin contact, give warm beverages (only if the person is conscious), and get medical help as soon as possible. Even if a person appears to have passed, the CDC adds, CPR should be provided because they could be successfully resuscitated. (Here are 12 ways your body deals with frigid temperatures.)
Rescue yourself if you fall through the ice
If you have the misfortune to crash through thin ice, instead of panicking, follow a few tips from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Keep your winter clothing on (it may trap air pockets that can keep you afloat), turn toward the direction you came (which is likely the strongest ice), reach your arms onto the unbroken surface and ideally use ice picks to pull yourself out (the DNR advises packing ice picks in a safety kit, but you could also try using your car or house keys or the blades of your ice skates if you happen to have been skating when you fell in), and roll away from the hole to keep your weight spread out.
Keep your furry friends safe
“Exposure to winter’s dry, cold air, and chilly rain, sleet, and snow can cause chapped paws and itchy, flaking skin, but these aren’t the only discomforts pets can suffer,” says the ASPCA. “Winter walks can become downright dangerous if chemicals from ice-melting agents are licked off of bare paws.” In order to keep your outdoor animals safe from a range of problems, the ASPCA advises tips such as covering your pet’s paws with petroleum jelly or even booties to protect against stinging ice, washing and drying your pet’s feet and belly after walks to remove ice, chemicals, and salt, and promptly cleaning any coolant or antifreeze spills from your vehicle to protect against poisoning.
“Fortunately, with the right precautions you can still enjoy the outdoors in the cold weather,” says Dr. Weinstein. He advises dressing warmly in layers, including an inner layer that helps wick moisture away from the body, followed by insulating layers and then an outer shell that protects against wind and moisture. Many of the insulating synthetic fabrics are excellent, as is wool, he says, though cotton should be avoided. Hats, hand protection (mittens are warmer than gloves), and good footwear (preferably waterproof and with good treads) are all musts. “I still like to ski in the single digits. I just add a layer so my core stays warm and can share blood with my extremities, and I cover all my exposed skin with a hat/helmet and a balaclava,” Dr. Weinstein says. “I drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids and hope for snow!” Cold feet and hands? Try these 7 tips to keep them warm.
- The Lancet: "Mortality risk attributable to high and low ambient temperature: a multicountry observational study"
- Dan Weinstein, MD, Medical Director of the University of Vermont Medical Center Urgent Care and Assistant Professor at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine.
- American Red Cross: "Home Heating Fires"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Winter Weather"
- National Safety Council: "Carbon Monoxide: The Invisible Killer"
- National Safety Council: "Be Prepared for Winter Driving"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Prevent Hypothermia and Frostbite"
- Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: "What if you fall in?"
- ASPCA: "Cold Weather Safety Tips"