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Protect Yourself From the Cold

Avoid frostbite, hypothermia and other winter health hazards.

Winter brings hidden dangers to your health. Here's how to prevent cold-weather health hazards.

Hypothermia

This week a Wisconsin man died from cardiac arrest brought on by hypothermia. He was walking across a snow-covered field — dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt — after his van got stuck in the snow close to his home.

What happens: Your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. While it usually occurs at temperatures well below freezing, hypothermia can occur above 40 degrees in people who are chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water.

Warning signs: Shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, slurred speech, drowsiness, memory loss.

What to do: Take the person's temperature; if it's below 95 degrees, call an ambulance. Get the patient to a warm room, remove wet clothing, and use electric or other blankets — warming the chest, neck, head or groin areas first. Provide warm nonalcoholic beverages — no caffeine — to increase body temperature, and keep the person wrapped in warm blankets or clothing, including the head and neck.

Frostbite

The risk of frostbite is higher in older people who tend to have reduced blood circulation. It usually occurs on fingers, toes, nose, ears and cheeks, and can cause permanent damage — sometimes requiring amputation.

What happens: Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in the areas it strikes. Victims may be unaware of the condition because their frozen tissue is numb.

The colder it is, the less time it takes to get frostbite.

Warning signs: Skin feels unusually firm or waxy, is white or a grayish-yellow color, and numb.

What to do: Until you can get medical attention, seek warm shelter. Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes, as that can increase the damage. Immerse the affected area in warm — not hot — water but avoid heating pads, lamps or stoves because numb areas can easily be burned. In an emergency, frostbitten fingers can be warmed by the heat of an armpit.

Deadly falls

On any given day, every 18 seconds, accidental falls send an older adult to the emergency room. With icy streets, wintertime walking can be especially hazardous to one's health.

What happens: Most of the 23,000 deaths a year attributed to falls are due to head injuries or hip fractures that lead to extended hospitalization — where people contract pneumonia or other infections.

Watch for: Icy sidewalks and steps.

What to do:

  • When it's icy out, wear appropriate shoes, take short steps, walk slower and spread salt or kitty litter on your sidewalks.
  • Exercise regularly — tai chi is especially good because its gentle movements help improve balance. Have your eyes checked once a year and get enough vitamin D and calcium in your diet.
  • Consider adjusting medications, including sedatives and antidepressants, that can increase your risk of falls.

Sid Kirchheimer writes about health and consumer issues.

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