Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wellness Wednesday: Cold Weather Safety

With the extreme cold weather that is being forecast for much of the country, I have chosen to write today about things you can do to keep yourself and your families safe while in the cold.

First, there are two major ailments that can be caused by the cold weather: frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite is the literal freezing of the body, or parts of the body. It most commonly occurs in the fingers, toes, ears, nose, cheeks, and/or chin. Frostbite can cause permanent damage and may result in amputation. Hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature. It can affect the brain causing the person to become unable to think clearly and/or move slowly. This can make it so the person is unaware of what is happening and/or they are unable to do anything about it.

So how do we avoid frostbite and hypothermia when we have to go out in the cold? The most important way is to dress properly for the weather. First, dress in several loose-fitting layers of clothing. It is important to remove any wet clothing since wet clothing will chill the body quicker than dry clothing. Also, if you start to get too warm, be sure to remove extra layers so that you do not perspire and get the inner layers of clothing wet. It is easier to add them back on when you get cold again than it is to change out the inside layers of clothes. Choosing inner layers of clothing made from wool, silk, or polypropylene will do a better job of retaining body heat than cotton will. Outer lays should be made from a tightly-woven fabric, preferably wind and water resistant and with sleeves that are snug at the wrist. Finish off the layered ensemble with a warm hat, a scarf or mask that covers your face and mouth, mittens (which are warmer than gloves), and waterproof shoes.

Other important things to remember is to limit the time outdoors, especially during periods of extreme cold and/or wind. When you are out in the cold, keep moving. If you start to feel numb in any part of your body or you start having excessive shivering, return to a warm area and drink something warm, but avoid caffeine and alcohol. Be sure to take these "warming up" breaks regularly if you have something to do that keeps you outside for an extended period of time.

Now that you know what can happen and how to prevent it, what do you do if it happens anyway? First, bring the person (or yourself) into a warm place and remove any wet, frozen, or tight clothing and replace them with warm clothes and/or blankets. Take their temperature and if it is below 95 degrees, or if they are unconscious, call 911 immediately and follow their directions. Otherwise, give them something warm, but uncaffeinated and non-alcoholic, to drink. Quickly, but gently get the affected body parts warm again using warm blankets and warm (not hot) water. Do not rub any frostbitten areas. Avoid hot water bottles, heat lamps, electric blankets and hot stoves. Do not break any blisters. Seek medical attention for serious cases of frostbite as soon as possible.

Hopefully, none of us will experience hypothermia or frostbite, but if you do, I hope this information will be helpful to you.

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