Stay Safe This Winter
The simple steps you take today can help you have an injury-free season.
Fire and ice, two unavoidable elements of winter living, can present major risks. This year, be prepared with these seasonal safety tips from George Becker, M.D., director of the Department of Emergency Medicine at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, and Barbara Schreibman, M.D., associate chief of emergency medicine at Englewood Health.
RISK: FALLS ON ICE
About 36,000 people die from falls each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many more suffer head injuries and bone fractures.
Don’t trust your eyes. Black ice gets its name because it’s invisible. If the temperature is below freezing, assume that surfaces are slippery.
Forgo fancy footwear. Make sure your outside footwear has good traction, ideally with rubber soles and treads.
Take extra care if you’re older. Have eyes and feet checked regularly, and do exercises to improve balance and strength.
Put pride aside. Consider using a cane or walking stick to help you navigate outdoors, or ask a friend for an arm to lean on over icy patches.
RISK: VIRAL AND BACTERIAL INFECTIONS
Flu season peaks between December and March, and other infections—colds, gastrointestinal bacteria and viruses, strep throat—are also more likely in the winter.
Wash your hands frequently, especially if you’ve shaken hands with anyone or touched any public surfaces like door handles or ATMs.
Carry an antibacterial spray or gel. When you can’t get to a sink, using one of these products is the next best thing.
Get out of touch. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth as much as possible to minimize the chance of catching a flu or other bug.
Get vaccinated. Everyone 6 months and older should get the flu vaccine. “It takes a few weeks to develop immunity, so people should get vaccinated as soon as possible if they haven’t already done so,” says Dr. Becker. “It’s not too late!”
Take care of your health. A nutritious diet and at least seven hours of sleep every night will help keep your immune system strong.
RISK: HYPOTHERMIA AND FROSTBITE
Hypothermia is abnormally low body temperature caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Symptoms include shivering, exhaustion and confusion. Frostbite (the freezing of body parts like fingers and toes) can be indicated by numbness and a whitish patch of skin. If you see signs of either condition, take immediate action.
Dress warmly. Wear multiple layers of clothing, and “when the temperature starts to dip well below freezing, cover exposed skin—especially the fingers, ears and face,” Dr. Becker advises.
Check on older friends and relatives. “The elderly are at increased risk for a variety of reasons,” Dr. Becker says, “so it is important to check on your older family members and neighbors regularly.”
Don’t drink alcohol and then spend time outside when it’s cold. In addition to the elderly, “the most vulnerable populations include the mentally ill and those whose judgment is impaired by drugs or alcohol,” says Dr. Becker.
RISK: OVEREXERTION/HEART ATTACKS
Recent studies have indicated a physiological link between colder temperatures and heart risks.
Stay warm. This is critical because cold temperatures can slow down the flow of blood and potentially cause blood clots to form.
Be careful about shoveling. “Consider asking for help from someone in advance if you are not in optimal health, and plan to start early, particularly if a large snowfall is expected,” Dr. Becker advises.
Beware the snowblower. Using machinery to clear snow from the driveway is easier, but it’s not without risks. “Devastating hand injuries occur in a split-second—never place your hand in a snow blower, even if the motor is not running,” Dr. Becker warns.”There is torque in the axle that is released when an obstruction is cleared that will cause the blades to spin as if the machine were on.”
Be mindful about holiday celebrations. The incidence of heart attacks tends to spike during the winter holiday season, possibly related to dietary overindulgence—or because people tend to put off getting troubling symptoms checked during the holidays.
RISK: CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that’s produced by burning fossil fuels (gasoline, wood, propane and charcoal). When breathed in, CO replaces oxygen in red blood cells, causing illness and even death. “Early symptoms (headache, fatigue, nausea and dizziness) can mimic viral syndromes, so it’s important to maintain a heightened awareness that carbon monoxide may be a factor,” says Dr. Becker.
Install battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors. Check them frequently to ensure they are working properly.
Have your furnace serviced regularly by a professional.
Heat and cook with care. Don’t use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement or garage, or near a window. Use an extension cord that is more than 20 feet long to keep a generator at a safe distance from the house.
RISK: HOUSE FIRES
The risk of fire and smoke inhalation rises in the winter, so residents need to be extra careful inside their homes.
Make sure there are smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in your living space, especially in the kitchen and bedrooms. “You should also have your heating system inspected to make sure it is in good working order,” says Dr. Schreibman.
Be smart about space heaters. Get the kind that will turn off automatically if knocked over. Keep it as far away from curtains and furniture as possible.
Consider LED candles. LED candles don’t carry the same risk as real candles. But just to be safe, “always keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and call 911 immediately if there is any size fire,” says Dr. Schreibman.
Maintain your holiday tree. Branches and needles are a fire hazard, so keep your tree watered and well-groomed or get a fake one.
Keep young children out of the kitchen. “During the holidays especially, people can get burns from boiling liquids, cooking grease and hot metal pans,” says Dr. Schreibman. “If someone gets burned, run cool water over the burn and seek medical attention.”