Jack Frost arrives this week, just a few days ahead of Santa. But although winter officially barrels onto the scene on Dec. 21, millions of people across the country already have felt at least one arctic blast this season.
Cold weather offers the opportunity for a lot of fun – skiing, sledding, skating, snowmobiling and more. But it also can pose serious health dangers. Following are five winter safety tips to protect yourself in the months ahead.
1. Treat frostbite quickly
Frostbite can put a serious chill into winter fun. It damages your skin, nerves and bones. In its most serious form, frostbite can lead to the amputation of a toe, finger or even an entire limb.
Signs of frostbite include:
- Cold skin and a feeling of “pins and needles”
- Burning or stinging sensation
- Red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin
As frostbite progress, numbness may set in. In severe cases, the skin can turn black.
“If you believe someone has frostbite, you need to seek medical attention as soon as possible,” says Tess Benham, senior program manager at the National Safety Council.
If medical care is not immediately available – such as if you are camping or hiking – get into a warm place quickly. Remove wet clothing and constricting items.
Warm the frostbitten area in lukewarm water – between 99 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit – for 20 to 30 minutes. But only do this if there is no danger of the skin refreezing before you can seek out professional medical care.
2. Choose the right boots
Think your boots are winter-ready? Guess again. A recent Canadian study tested 98 pairs of winter boots and found that just 8 percent were slip-resistant enough to prevent falls.
That’s a serious problem. As the study authors note, each year about 20,000 citizens of the province of Ontario seek emergency treatment for injuries resulting from winter falls.
If you live in a cold climate, make sure your boots are adequate to keep you upright on ice and snow. The Canada Safety Council recommends looking for well-insulated, waterproof boots that have these features.
- A thick, nonslip tread sole made of natural rubber
- Wide, low heels
- Lightweight construction
3. Thing twice before shoveling snow
Big snow storms are an inevitable part of in winter life in much of the nation. But before you grab a snow shovel, understand what you are getting into.
“Most people do not think of shoveling snow as exercise, but it can be extremely taxing,” Benham says.
Shoveling can be dangerous for your heart, and tough on your muscles – especially in your back. Chilly weather increases the health risks of shoveling, as the cold raises your heart rate and blood pressure, which can make blood clot more easily.
If you feel fit enough to shovel, take things slow and try to push the snow instead of lifting it. If you have to lift, try to do so with your legs, and only partially fill the shovel. When you become tired, go inside for a while and rest.
Anyone who has been a couch potato throughout the fall should look to others for shoveling help. “If you are out of shape, you should not shovel snow,” Benham says.
4. Beware the invisible danger of carbon monoxide
Carbon monoxide – commonly known as “CO” – is an odorless, colorless gas that is produced any time a fossil fuel is burned in a furnace, portable heater, vehicle, generator or grill.
If CO builds up in an enclosed space, it can poison people and pets, leading to sudden illness and death. Each year, an average of 170 Americans die this way, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Carbon monoxide poisonings peak in December and January, according to the National Safety Council. One of the best ways to prevent such a tragedy is to purchase a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector and install it in your home near the bedrooms.
“Check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall,” Benham says.
In addition, call a technician to service your heating system, water heater and any other gas or coal-burning appliances each year. Make sure your chimney is checked and cleaned each year.
Also, avoid any of the following:
- Running a generator inside the home
- Using a gas oven to heat the house
- Leaving a car idling in the garage
5. Stay patient if you are stranded
When the weather turns nasty, it is best to stay home. But sometimes, you need to venture out. If you are stranded during winter weather, stay with your car unless help is available within 100 yards, advises the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While waiting for help, move your arms and legs regularly. Make yourself visible by adding a colored cloth to your antenna and raising the car’s hood if snow is not falling. Run the engine and heater only 10 minutes per hour, and further increase your visibility by turning on the overhead light while the car runs.