Stay Safe During Extreme Cold Weather

Expert Tips for Staying Safe During Extreme Cold Weather

After a few inches of snow, a blast of subzero temperatures and high winds is expected to invade the Chicago area this week bringing with it this season’s first major winter storm. Northwestern Medicine® experts caution that as temperatures drop, it’s important to take warnings seriously and be careful while outdoors.

“We usually see an increase in patients during cold spells,” said Jack Franaszek, MD, medical director of Northwestern Medicine immediate care centers. “Minor injuries such as bumps, bruises and sprains from slips and falls on the ice are very common, as well as more serious conditions like frostbite and hypothermia.”

To ensure a healthy and safe winter season, Franaszek recommends the following tips for anyone living in a cold-weather region:

  • Be cautious of slippery conditions: Icy sidewalks are the cause of many slips and falls. Wear boots that are well-insulated and have good traction on the bottom. Take shorter, slower steps to decrease your chance of falling and walk on shoveled sidewalks when possible.
  • Watch for falling ice: Icicles build quickly and can be dangerous for unsuspecting pedestrians. Pay attention to signs for falling ice and be aware of your surroundings as you walk near tall buildings.
  • Dress in layers for warmth: Avoid being outside for extended periods of time in extreme cold weather. If you are going outdoors, dress appropriately by layering clothing and wearing a scarf, hat and gloves, making sure to cover all areas of exposed skin.
  • Know the symptoms: “Prolonged exposure to the cold can cause serious health problems including hypothermia,” explained Franaszek. “If you experience symptoms such as shivering, drowsiness or exhaustion, slurred speech, memory loss or confusion, seek medical attention immediately.”
  • Recognize the warning signs of Frostbite: Frostbite affects areas of exposed skin including the nose, ears cheeks, fingers and toes. Numbness, loss of feeling or a stinging sensation are early warning signs, and if you find your skin to feel firm or waxy or be white or grayish-yellow in color or, get out of the cold and cover the area exposed. For suspected cases of frostbite, rewarm the affected area gently by immersing in warm, not hot, water, and make sure that the fingers or toes are not re-exposed to cold.
  • Clearing snow: “Even though clearing snow is good exercise, it can also be dangerous,” cautioned Franaszek. “Don’t work to the point of exhaustion and pace yourself. If you have a history of heart or back problems, check with your doctor before clearing snow or have someone else shovel for you.”
  • Prepare your house: More home fires occur during the winter months than any other time of year. Take the proper precautions by having your furnace checked, your chimney inspected and proper smoke and carbon monoxide detectors installed. Make sure all electrical heaters are away from flammable materials, and that combustion heaters are well vented and working properly.
  • Eat and drink sensibly: Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages can cause your body to lose heat more rapidly. Drink warm beverages or broth to maintain body temperature.
  • Check on neighbors and elderly relatives: Colder weather can put the elderly at higher risk for health problems and restrict them to their homes due to severe weather. When subzero temperatures occur, be sure to check on elderly neighbors and relatives to make sure that their home is adequately heated and that they have the necessary food and other items they need.
  • Travel safely: Before you pack up the car and hit the road this season, check the weather forecast. Slow down when driving. Be aware that ice patches can form on bridges, overpasses, and ramps when the rest of the streets are simply wet. It is also a good idea to pack a winter weather emergency kit in your car, complete with extra clothing and blankets, a shovel, sand or cat litter for traction and non-perishable snacks and water.

“Injuries and illnesses related to cold weather are preventable,” Franaszek said. “Babies are especially vulnerable to the cold so make sure they are bundled up. Much heat loss occurs from the head so wearing suitable headgear, as your mother always said, is important. It’s really all about taking simple precautions that will keep you safe this season.”

Click here for more information on the Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care centers and the emergency department at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

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