Stay Safe from Cold and Future Winter Snow

Washington, DC (January 23) -- With the Washington region in the grips of an arctic blast and combined with reports of snow on Friday, this weather can pose unfavorable conditions, as well as serious health and safety threats. George Washington University Hospital experts caution that as temperatures dip, it is important to take warnings seriously and be careful while outdoors.

“We usually see a number of patients with cold-related problems during cold spells,” said Robert Shesser, MD, Professor, Emergency Medicine, and Chairman, Department of Emergency Medicine at The George Washington University Hospital. “This is particularly true on the days after rain or small amounts of snow when conditions in the early morning are very treacherous.”

To ensure a healthy and safe winter season, Shesser recommends the following tips:

• Be cautious of slippery conditions: Icy sidewalks are the cause of many slips and falls. Be especially careful in the early morning; there may be a fine sheen of ice on sidewalks and steps that are not visible to the naked eye. Wear boots that are well-insulated and have good traction on the bottom. Take shorter, slower steps to decrease your chance of falling and walk on shoveled sidewalks when possible.

• Dress in layers for warmth: Avoid being outside for extended periods of time in extreme cold weather. If you are going outdoors, dress appropriately by layering clothing and wearing a scarf, hat and gloves, making sure to cover all areas of exposed skin. If the skin becomes wet, it conducts more heat away from the body, which markedly increases the chance of becoming significantly hypothermic.

• Know the symptoms: “Prolonged exposure to the cold or exercising in the cold can cause serious health problems,” explained Shesser. “If you are exposed to the cold and feel yourself becoming exceptionally fatigued or tired, make sure you get to a place where you can warm up”

• Recognize the warning signs: Frostbite is an actual freezing of the tissues that affects areas of exposed skin including the nose, ears cheeks, fingers and toes. Numbness, loss of feeling or a stinging sensation are early warning signs, and if you find your skin to feel firm or waxy or be white or grayish-yellow in color, get out of the cold and cover the area exposed.

• Clearing snow: “Working hard in the cold places additional demands on your heart and lungs," said Shesser. "Snow shoveling is such an activity and it places a great deal of strain on the back and arms. If you have a history of heart or back problems, check with your doctor before clearing snow or have someone else shovel for you.”

• Prepare your house: More home fires occur during the winter months than any other time of year. Take the proper precautions by having your furnace checked, your chimney inspected and proper smoke and carbon monoxide detectors installed. Make sure the batteries on both the carbon monoxide and smoke detectors are operational. Make sure all electrical heaters are away from flammable materials, and that combustion heaters are well vented and working properly.

• Eat and drink sensibly: This is good advice for any time of the year. Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages can cause your body to lose heat more rapidly. Drink warm, sweet beverages or broth to maintain body temperature.

• Check on neighbors and elderly relatives: Colder weather can put the elderly at higher risk for health problems and restrict them to their homes due to severe weather. When sub-zero temperatures occur, be sure to check on elderly neighbors and relatives to make sure that their home is adequately heated and that they have the necessary food and other items they need.

• Travel safely: Before you pack up the car and hit the road this season, check the weather forecast. Slow down when driving. Be aware that ice patches can form on bridges, overpasses, and ramps when the rest of the streets are simply wet. It is also a good idea to pack a winter weather emergency kit in your car, complete with extra clothing and blankets, a shovel, sand or cat litter for traction and non-perishable snacks and water.

“Injuries and illnesses related to cold weather are preventable,” added Shesser. “Taking simple precautions can help keep you safe this season.”

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