When winter temperatures drop significantly below normal, staying warm and safe can become a challenge. Exposure to cold temperatures, whether indoors or outside, can cause serious or life-threatening health problems. To keep yourself and your family safe, you should know how to prevent cold-related health problems. The Independence Health Department provides the following tips to keep your family safe.
Avoid Hypothermia and Frostbite. Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Signs of Hypothermia include constant shivering, clumsiness, stumbling, lack of coordination, slurred speech or mumbling, confusion or difficulty thinking, drowsiness or very low energy, weak pulse, and slow, shallow breathing.
Frostbite occurs when the skin and body tissue just underneath it freezes. Frostbite typically affects smaller, more exposed areas of the body, such as your fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin. Signs and symptoms of frostbite include a slightly painful, prickly or itching sensation, red, white, pale or grayish-yellow skin, hard or waxy-looking skin, a cold or burning feeling, and numbness. If you feel like you have one of these symptoms, seek medical attention.
To avoid these, dress appropriately for cold weather and wear layers. Wear a hat or other protective covering to prevent body heat from escaping from your head, face and neck. Cover your hands with mittens or gloves and wear several layers of loose fitting, lightweight clothing. Outer clothing made of tightly woven, water-repellent material is best for wind protection.
Check on Neighbors and Friends. Older adults often make less body heat because of a slower metabolism and less physical activity. Check on friends and neighbors, especially the elderly, to ensure they are safe and their homes are adequately heated.
Check your Pets. Try not to keep your pet outside for long periods of time, but if you are unable to keep your dog inside during cold weather, provide him/her with a warm, solid shelter against wind. Make sure that they have unlimited access to fresh, non-frozen water. The floor of the shelter should be off of the ground and the bedding should be thick, dry and changed regularly to provide a warm, dry environment. Thoroughly wipe off your dog's legs and stomach when he comes in out of the sleet, snow or ice and check your dog’s paws frequently for signs of cold-weather injury or damage, such as cracked paw pads or bleeding.
Limit Physical Activity. Avoid activities that would cause you to sweat a lot. The combination of wet clothing and cold weather can cause you to lose body heat more quickly. Cold weather puts an extra strain on the heart. If you have heart disease or high blood pressure, follow your doctor’s advice about shoveling snow or performing other hard work in the cold. Otherwise, if you have to do heavy outdoor chores, dress warmly and work slowly. Remember, your body is already working hard just to stay warm, so don’t overdo it.
Avoid Ice. Walking on ice is extremely dangerous. Many cold-weather injuries result from falls on ice-covered sidewalks, steps, driveways, and porches. Keep your steps and walkways as free of ice as possible by using rock salt or another chemical de-icing compound. Sand may also be used on walkways to reduce the risk of slipping.
Be Cautious About Travel.
• Listen for radio or television reports of travel advisories issued by the National Weather Service.
• Do not travel in low visibility conditions.
• Avoid traveling on ice-covered roads, overpasses, and bridges if at all possible.
• If you must travel by car, use tire chains and take a mobile phone with you.
• If you must travel, let someone know your destination and when you expect to arrive. Ask them to notify authorities if you are late.
• Check and restock the winter emergency supplies in your car before you leave.
• Never pour water on your windshield to remove ice or snow; shattering may occur.
• Don’t rely on a car to provide sufficient heat; the car may break down.
• Always carry additional warm clothing appropriate for the winter conditions.
Observe these safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather to reduce the risk of weather-related health problems.
Additional information on preventing cold weather related illnesses is available through the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services' website at www.health.mo.gov.