Winter brings both the good and the bad. We all love snow days, how quiet it seems to get when the snow is falling, and not having to mow our lawn. But we could do without the potholes, the ice, the crazy high heating bills, and the hassle of bundling our kids up every morning. It is hard enough getting their shoes on—now we have to worry about scarves, mittens, hats, and coats!
But the biggest downside of winter are some of the dangers that come with it. In the U.S., the winter weather is responsible for about 400,000 car accidents a year with 1,300 fatalities. Other dangers include house fires, avalanches, winter storms, exposure to cold, and slipping on ice or snow.
So with winter upon us, here are a few tips to help you stay healthy and safe this winter.
Frostbite and Hypothermia
Cold weather and snow usually don’t dampen the spirits of true outdoor enthusiasts, but it does mean that you will need to be prepared for the weather.
Frostbite occurs when your skin and outer tissues freeze. Your fingers, toes, ears and nose are at the greatest risk. Frostbite generally occurs when people aren’t expecting the weather to be cold so they are unprepared when it hits. You can protect yourself by making sure you have clothes on hand that will keep you dry and warm.
Frostbite usually causes a loss of feeling in the area or a burning sensation. Generally the skin also looks pale and may even blister. If you think you have frostbite get indoors quickly and slowly heat up the affected areas with warm water. Do not rub it. If the area is still numb after a few minutes, call your doctor.
Hypothermia is when your entire body falls below its normal temperature. For children, this can occur more quickly than in adults. Symptoms include shivering, drowsiness, clumsiness, incoherence, and slurred speech. It can be hard to tell whether or not you have hypothermia because the symptoms usually make you less lucid. In cold conditions it is important to be aware so that you can identify the signs in others. If you suspect hypothermia, call 911 immediately. While waiting, warm up slowly by removing any wet clothes and wrapping yourself in warm blankets. You should focus on warming your body’s core first.
Winter is a great time to play outdoors, whether you are sledding, skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, hiking, or biking. But winter sports also come with their risks—including broken bones, sprains, frostbite, and head injuries. You can protect yourself by making sure you are using proper equipment and don’t push yourself too hard. Staying in shape and stretching out beforehand is also important. And be careful where you play—obey avalanche warnings and stick to trails that are safe and well marked.
Staying Warm and Safe at Home
Sometimes it is easy to take modern conveniences like our heating system for granted, but it still needs a little TLC or you may be stuck out in the cold. Get a tune up every year to make sure your heating system is working properly. If you use a fireplace or a wood-burning stove have the chimney connection and flue checked each year too. Don’t burn treated wood, pine branches or paper. They can fill your home with dangerous fumes or catch your roof on fire.
House fires increase during the winter, so you will want to be extra careful. The biggest culprits are space heaters. Be sure to keep them away from curtains or flammable materials. They should be placed on a hard floor and should never be left unattended. Be especially careful with pets or children as they could easily be burned.
Using your oven or stove to heat your house is very dangerous. It can cause carbon monoxide poisoning or start a fire. And be sure to have working fire and carbon monoxide alarms installed.
Keeping our sidewalks clear of snow and ice can be a major job. Even though slips and falls are the most common injury while shoveling snow, the biggest danger is of heart attacks. The upper body exertion and cold weather make your heart work overtime. It only takes two minutes to raise your heart rate above the recommended limits. If you have a heart condition or are out of shape, don’t shovel snow unless your doctor says it is okay.
Before shoveling do some warm up exercises and stretches. Take lots of breaks, and remember to lift with your legs, not your back. When possible, try pushing the snow instead of lifting it. Be realistic about how much snow you can shovel. Parking your car at the very end of the driveway makes it so that you don’t have to shovel the entire driveway. If you use a snow blower, follow the instructions and safety guidelines carefully. Snow blowers are the fourth most common cause of finger amputations caused by consumer products.
Slips and Falls
Besides being embarrassing, falling on the ice can result in everything from cuts and bruises to broken bones and head injuries. Being extra careful when walking on ice or snow helps, but your best bet is to wear good shoes with nonskid soles. When walking, try to stick to areas that have been cleared of ice, but watch out for those surprise patches.
Keeping your property clear of ice is also a good way to prevent slipping. You can use a rock salt or de-icing compound to melt ice. Or sprinkling a little sand on sidewalks can also help make things less slippery.
Driving in the Snow
Driving in the snow can be nerve-wracking, but these tips can make it a bit safer.
1. Make sure your car is prepared for the cold weather. Check your tires, wiper blades, and antifreeze. Use snow tires or chains when needed.
2. Drive the right speed for road conditions. If the weather is bad, slow down. When things are slippery, adding too much speed is going to make everything much, much worse. And remember, even if you are driving a four-wheel-drive SUV, it doesn’t mean that you are invincible.
3. Leave a lot of distance between you and other cars. When roads are slippery, you are going to need twice as much space to brake on time.
4. Gently apply your brakes before you hit a corner and then slightly accelerate once you leave the turn. This will help you maintain control of your car.
5. If you skid out, turn into the skid and accelerate slightly. This can help you regain control of the car, whereas slamming on the brakes will only make the skid worse.
While these tips can help, if a snowstorm is in the forecast, you are better off staying home.
Other Car Safety Tips
During the winter make sure you pack a winter emergency kit. This should include things like a flashlight, jumper cables, flares, sand (to help you gain traction if stuck), ice scraper, and blankets.
If you are stranded place flares or bright flags at each end of your car so that people can see it. Check to make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked by snow and then stay in your car. Stay warm by using your blankets and running the engine for a couple of minutes every hour. To keep carbon monoxide from building up in your car, leave the window open a little to let in fresh air.
Always let somebody know where you are going and when you expect to get there so that they can call for help if you don’t show up on time.
National Weather Service Winter Weather Preparedness
American Academy of Pediatrics Winter Safety Tips
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Be Prepared to Stay Safe and Healthy in Winter