By Joseph V. Portale, M.D.
If sales of outdoor heaters and fire pits are any indication, people are planning to spend more time outdoors this winter than in winters past.
And while outdoor activities can help limit exposure to the coronavirus, freezing temperatures along with snowy, icy conditions bring their own set of hazards.
However, by keeping the following tips in mind you can help ensure you stay healthy and safe when you venture out into the cold.
Bundle up. Jack Frost may be a fictional character, but hypothermia and frostbite are very real conditions that can have significant consequences. In fact, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hundreds of Americans die each year from hypothermia.
Older adults, people who stay outdoors for long periods of time, and young children are at greater risk for hypothermia and frostbite than others. To stay warm and protect against hypothermia and frostbite make sure to:
• Wear several layers of loose fitting clothing, including a water resistant coat.
• Make sure all body parts most often affected by frostbite, including your nose, ears, chin, fingers and toes, are covered by warm dry clothing.
• Wear a hat, gloves or mittens, a scarf or face mask, and water resistant boots.
In addition, hot toddies and other alcoholic beverages may seem like they’re keeping you warm, but alcohol actually causes heat loss and can impair the temperature control functions of your brain. If you drink alcohol, limit your consumption, especially when you’re out in the cold.
Shovel safely. Colder temperatures in combination with shoveling snow or other strenuous activities can increase the risk for heart attacks, especially for those who have heart disease or don’t exercise regularly.
To reduce your risk:
• Avoid sudden exertion in the cold and snow. Before you start digging out, warm up by stretching and doing other light movements.
• Go slowly and take frequent breaks.
• Do not shovel after eating a large meal or while smoking. Both put an extra load on your heart.
• Use a smaller shovel. It is easier on your heart to lift smaller shovelfuls more often than to lift a giant mound of snow once or twice. Pushing the snow rather than lifting it is even better.
Tread carefully. Snow and ice can make even the simplest activities like walking dangerous if you don’t take the right precautions. Guard against slips and falls on the ice – an consequently broken bones by:
• Wearing the proper footwear. Running out to get the mail in your slippers may be OK in the summer months, but in the winter, take time to put on footwear with treads and good traction.
• Taking it slow. Slowing down your pace and taking a wider stance while you’re walking can provide you more stability on slippery surfaces. Give yourself extra time to get where you’re going safely.
• Clearing your walkways. Keeping your walkways clear of snow and ice can help prevent falls. And don’t forget to dry wet floors after coming in from the snow.
If you’re a winter sports enthusiast, be sure to wear the right protective gear and exercise caution to prevent injury. Almost 200,000 people were treated at hospitals, doctors’ offices, and emergency rooms for injuries related to winter sports in 2018, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Protect against the flu and other respiratory illnesses. Everyone six months of age and older, unless their doctor says otherwise, should get vaccinated against the flu annually. If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, there’s still time as flu season typically runs into the spring.
The flu vaccine reduces your chances of contracting the flu and lessens the severity of symptoms if you do get sick. It is also important to note that the flu could exacerbate symptoms of COVID-19, making prevention even more critical.
Additionally, if you are 65 or older or have a chronic lung condition, a pneumonia shot is also recommended.
You can also protect against the flu and other respiratory illnesses by:
• Washing your hands frequently.
• Avoiding close contact with others who are sick.
• Covering your nose and your mouth.
• Avoiding touching your face, eyes and mouth.
To help stop the spread of COVID-19, individuals in New Jersey must wear face coverings in outdoor public spaces, in indoor spaces open to the public and in indoor commercial spaces.
Know when to get help. Just as important as knowing how to prevent winter health emergencies is knowing when to get help.
Call 9-1-1 and seek emergency care if you fall and suffer a fracture, experience severe respiratory symptoms, or experience signs of a heart attack, including:
• Chest pain.
• Discomfort in parts of the upper body.
• Shortness of breath.
• Nausea or lightheadedness.
In addition, seek emergency help for frostbite and hypothermia if you experience:
• Reddened skin that turns white, pale, waxy or blue (frostbite).
• Increased pain, swelling, redness or discharge in the area that was frostbitten.
• Intense shivering, slurred speech, drowsiness and loss of coordination (hypothermia).
The Center for Emergency Care at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center (PMC) provides state-of-the-art emergency medicine, treating patients with any medical problems that cannot wait to be seen by their regular doctor, as well as severe and life-threatening illnesses and injuries.
The center is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is staffed around-the-clock by physicians who are board certified in emergency medicine and specially trained nurses.
Pediatricians from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) are on-site 24/7 to consult on emergency cases involving infants, children and adolescents.
To find a physician with Penn Medicine Princeton, call 888-742-7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org.
Joseph V. Portale, M.D., is a member of the medical staff at Penn Medicine Princeton Health.