Avoid Health Risks in Winter Weather

TAWAS CITY, MI - January may have been somewhat mild, but there is still plenty of winter weather ahead. When the snow starts falling and temperatures drop, many people stay indoors and are less physically active. This presents unique challenges and potential health risks. Hospitals often see an influx of back injuries and heart attacks as a result of shoveling snow, as well as frostbite when not properly protected outdoors.

"Shoveling snow is much more difficult than running on treadmills,” says Bob May, DO, medical director, emergency medicine at Ascension St. Joseph and Ascension Standish hospitals. “The combination of both the aerobic exercise that gets your heart rate up, and what we call the isometric exercise—the lifting—can be an incredible strain on the heart.”

To stay healthy before you grab the snow shovel, take these steps:

  • Avoid shoveling if you have heightened risk factors like heart disease, high blood pressure or cholesterol.
  • Dress warmly. Cold temperatures can cause frostbite.
  • Take your time so you don’t overdo it.
  • Don’t smoke or drink alcohol as these activities can raise your heart rate and blood pressure.
  • If you experience symptoms, stop immediately, go inside and warm up. Call 911 if symptoms persist.

With the Tawas area Perchville event occurring in early February, many people will be outdoors and it’s important to protect yourself from hypothermia and frostbite.

“Hypothermia happens when a person is exposed to extremely cold temperatures,” says Dr. May. “Warning signs include shivering, exhaustion or feeling very tired, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. In children, signs include bright red, cold skin and very low energy. If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95°F, the situation is an emergency—get medical attention immediately.”

Frostbite can lead to a loss of feeling and color in the areas it affects, usually the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. “Signs of frostbite include a white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, and numbness. If you notice frostbite, seek medical care to avoid any permanent damage to the body,” explains Dr. May.

Some additional winter safety tips suggested by Dr. May include:

  • Dress warmly and stay dry

Adults and children should:

  • Wear a hat, scarf or knit mask to cover the head, face and mouth.
  • Wear sleeves that are snug at the wrist and mittens (they are warmer than gloves).
  • Wear water-resistant coat and boots.

Bundle up with layers:

  • Inner Layer: Wear fabrics that will hold more body heat and don’t absorb moisture. Wool, silk or polypropylene will hold more body heat than cotton.
  •  Insulation Layer: An insulation layer will help you retain heat by trapping air close to your body. Natural fibers, like wool, goose down or fleece work best.
  • Outer Layer: The outermost layer helps protect you from wind, rain and snow. It should be tightly woven, and preferably water and wind resistant, to reduce loss of body heat.

Stay dry:

  • Wet clothing chills the body quickly.
  •  Excess sweating will cause your body to lose more heat, so remove extra layers of clothing whenever you feel too warm.
  • Do not ignore shivering—it’s an important first sign that your body is losing heat. Constant shivering is a sign that it is time to go inside.
  • If you have asthma, breathing in cold, dry air can trigger an attack. Talk to your doctor about how you can prevent asthma attacks when outside in winter weather.

Eat well-balanced meals:

  • Eating well-balanced meals will help you stay warmer.
  •  Do not drink alcoholic or caffeinated beverages—they cause your body to lose heat faster. Instead, drink warm, sweet beverages or broth to help keep yourself warm. If you have any dietary restrictions, ask your doctor.

Stay off the ice:

  • Walking on ice is extremely dangerous. Many injuries happen from falls on ice-covered sidewalks, steps, driveways and porches.
  •  Keep your steps and walkways as free of ice as possible by using rock salt or other chemical deicing compounds. Sand may also be used on walkways to reduce the risk of slipping.

If you or a loved one are in need of emergent care, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. In northern Michigan, there are two Ascension ERs—one In Tawas City at 200 Hemlock Road, and another in Standish at 805 West Cedar Street. Both are open 24/7.