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Protect Your Family in Cold Weather

Garrett Katula, DoGarrett Katula, D.O.
Family Medicine, Rush Copley Medical Group

Q: With the colder temperatures here, are there any special precautions I can take with my family to protect them from cold weather health hazards?

A: During the cold weather season, it's important to know how to protect yourself and your loved ones from potential cold weather hazards. Dropping temperatures mean taking some special precautions that are more important during the winter months.

When you're exposed to the cold, the first line of defense is to wear loose-fitting clothing and dressing in layers. If you work in the cold, wear clothing made of polypropylene, which will help keep perspiration away from the skin and keep your body dry. Since nearly half of the body's heat can escape through the surface of the head and neck, it is important to wear a hat and scarf. This can help prevent frostbite and hypothermia.

If your skin looks mottled or pale and you're experiencing "pins and needles" in your hands, feet, nose, ears or cheeks, then you're likely experiencing frostnip. It is the first sign that your skin is overexposed. If you have these signs, get into a warm, dry environment immediately so you don't develop frostbite. Frostbite is when tiny ice crystals form in skin tissue. If it is caught quickly, frostbite is completely reversible. Hypothermia is another serious problem, which is when the body's core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This serious illness can impair the brain and muscles and is potentially life-threatening.

Shoveling snow can also be dangerous to one's health. Physically unfit people who engage in activities such as shoveling snow are at higher risk for a heart attack than the physically fit. The elderly, people with high blood pressure, those with a history of heart disease or risk factors such as smoking, obesity and high cholesterol levels should not shovel snow. If you do shovel, lift small loads rather than large, heavy loads and rest every few minutes. Don't drink alcohol, smoke or take caffeine immediately before or after shoveling. These substances constrict blood vessels increasing strain to the heart.

While you can't prevent cold temperatures, here are some things you can do to prevent illness and injury in frigid weather.

  • Protect your lips – Cold and wind can dry out lips and cause the skin to crack. Use lip balm to keep your lips moist and healthy.
  • Eat light – A snack before going out in the cold is better than a heavy meal, which requires a large blood flow to the gastrointestinal system to aid in digestion. The digestive process may prevent warm blood from circulating to your fingers and toes. Save the heavier meal for when you are safely back inside.
  • Keep hydrated – Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.
  • Dress properly – Wear outer clothing that shields the wind and sun from your skin. Cold and windy air causes a wind-chill effect that is much colder and more dangerous than the outside air temperature.
  • Avoid alcohol – Alcohol causes your body to lose heat, in addition to contributing to dehydration.
  • Ask about your medications – Inquire with your physician if any of the medications you take can make you more susceptible to a cold weather illness.
  • Keep kids safe – Because they pose a strangulation risk, it's best not to wrap children in scarves. Instead, use a neck "gaiter," which stays in place and keeps your child warm without risk.