Winter Weather Health Concerns

For those living in the Eastern Seaboard and the Upper Midwest, this has been a long and harsh winter.  Folks in these parts of the country have learned a new weather term and experienced the weather phenomenon called the “Polar Vortex” which caused record breaking low temperatures.  And to add to the misery, a new snow storm seems to emerge almost every week for the last month and a half.  It therefore comes as no surprise that the number of winter weather related injuries has been on the rise. According to an article in the New York Times titled “Oops, There Goes Another Fall on the Ice” the number of cases seen in the emergency rooms in New York hospitals has been on a steady increase. Children rushing to school slip and fall on ice and find themselves with broken ankles.  Older people, landing on their wrists trying to brace themselves as they fall, break wrists and hips.

According to the National Weather Service (NWS) winter weather often catches people unprepared. Researchers say that 70 percent of the fatalities related to ice and snow occur in automobiles, and about 25 percent of all winter related fatalities are people that are caught off guard, out in the storm. One of the biggest dangers of winter weather is wind chill. The wind chill is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin through the combined effects of wind and cold. As the wind increases, heat is carried away from the body at an accelerated rate, driving down the body temperature, and leading to hypothermia and frost bite.

According to Dr. Marc Stoller, winter is not the time to make a fashion statement. Underdressing or stepping outdoors after one has been sweating or while hair is still wet, can quickly lead to hypothermia and frostbite. Dr. Stoller advises people to pile on the layers just before going outside. A warm hat will protect the head since the head loses heat faster than other body parts, especially in children. Warm gloves and waterproof boots also will help prevent frostbite in fingers and toes, which have poorer circulation than other parts of the body.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) the following are the warning signs of hypothermia in adults: (1) shivering, exhaustion; (2) confusion, fumbling hands; (3) memory loss, slurred speech; and (4) drowsiness.  For infants the signs include bright red skin and very low energy. The CDC advises if any of these signs are present, take the person’s temperature right away.  If it is below 95 degrees, the situation is dire and immediate medical attention should be sought so that emergency treatment can be administered.

Shoveling snow is another danger of winter weather since it seriously raises one’s risk of a heart attack. According to snow shoveling can be more strenuous than exercising full throttle on a treadmill. While this may not be a problem for healthy individuals, it can be extremely dangerous for those in poor physical shape. Shoveling, even pushing a heavy snow blower, can cause a sudden increase in blood pressure and heart rate, and the cold air can cause constriction of blood vessels and decreased oxygen to the heart. These conditions combine to make the heart work harder and may trigger a potentially fatal heart attack.  According the American Heart Association those in poor physical condition or those with existing heart disease or a personal history of stroke should probably avoid shoveling.

The classic sign of a heart attack is pain in the chest that may radiate down the left arm, but sometimes it may feel more like a muscle pull. The pain usually lasts more than a few minutes and can wax and wane in intensity.  According to “When in doubt, go to the emergency room or call 911 and get it checked out.” This is especially prudent in winter months when research has shown heart attacks are more common and more severe.