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Wintertime means adding an extra blanket to the bed, and grabbing your coat, scarf and gloves before leaving the house. But the cold-weather months don’t just mean adding another layer of clothes. Below-freezing temperatures can put you at risk for serious health problems if you’re not careful.
Here are five cold weather health risks and how to avoid them.
You might associate hypothermia, when body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with very cold temperatures—and that is typically when it strikes. But hypothermia can also occur when it’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit if you’re wet from rain, sweat or cold water.
Older adults, infants, people who spend lots of time outdoors (think hiking and skiing) and those who drink alcohol in excess or do recreational drugs are at risk of hypothermia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion and slurred speech. If someone is showing these signs, get medical attention immediately.
“While you wait for medical help, get the person into a warm place, remove any wet clothes and get them blankets,” said Jennifer Naticchia-Walls, MD, Inspira Primary Care Haddon Township. “Not taking hypothermia seriously can lead to serious health issues or even death.”
Frostbite occurs when skin is exposed to cold air for prolonged periods of time. That’s why it’s so important to cover bare skin with hats, gloves, scarves and long, warm clothing when you go outside during winter.
Frostbite most often affects the same groups of people as hypothermia. Signs of frostbite include white or grayish-yellow skin, skin that feels waxy or firm and numbness.
“Often, people with frostbite don’t realize how bad it is because their skin is completely numb, which means they don’t tend to it soon enough,” said Dr. Naticchia-Walls. “If you do think you have frostbite, get medical attention and avoid trying to heat the affected skin quickly—if the skin is numb, it could burn without the person realizing it.”
When you’re outside for a long time, your blood vessels constrict, and your heart must work harder to keep your body warm. For people with heart disease, this can cause chest pain. Physical activity and overexertion, such as shoveling snow, can even lead to heart attacks.
“If you know you have heart disease, it’s important to listen to your body and limit your time outside,” said Dr. Naticchia-Walls. “If you are outside and experience chest pain, it’s important to go inside to warm up. Your heart is working harder than it should.”
The cold weather not only constricts blood vessels, but also airways in your lungs. During cold weather, you might experience wheezing, chest tightness, coughing and trouble breathing from cold, dry air.
“Breathing issues are especially common in people who have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),” said Dr. Naticchia-Walls. “For people with COPD, cold air can cause lung spasms that feel like an asthma attack.”
The same advice applies—if you are having trouble breathing, it’s best to go inside.
Injury from slips and falls
With cold weather comes ice and snow, and the risk of slips and falls, which could lead to bruises, twisted ankles or even broken bones. This risk increases as we age, and our bones become more brittle.
To prevent injury, spread ice melt on sidewalks and pathways, clear your driveway, use handrails, allow yourself enough time to walk slowly, wear weather-appropriate shoes and test a surface before putting your full weight on it.
“If you do fall, assess whether or not you are injured, and attempt to get up or crawl to safety,” said Dr. Naticchia-Walls. “Seek medical help; injuries sometimes surface a day or two later.”
Inspira Health is a high reliability organization (HRO), which means safety is the top priority for patients and staff. To make an appointment, call 1-800-INSPIRA.