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February 4, 2013

Winter Weather Safety Tips from the Oswego County Health Department

Winter has returned to Central New York, and the Oswego County Health Department is reminding residents to protect themselves against frostbite and hypothermia while they're outside playing, or moving, the snow.

"Winter can be a fun-filled time for enjoying outdoor activities such as skiing, skating, and sledding," said Jiancheng Huang, Public Health Director for Oswego County. "However, exposure to the cold can also cause life-threatening conditions such as hypothermia and frostbite. It's important to protect ourselves and our family members, especially those who are most vulnerable, against these serious health risks."

Hypothermia is the general cooling of the whole body over time and is most common when a person's core body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia is dangerous and can be fatal if not detected immediately and treated properly.

Those most at risk are the elderly, infants, and those who work or play outdoors. For individuals over 65 years of age and infants, hypothermia can also occur indoors, so the thermostat should be set no lower than 68 degrees.

Warning signs of hypothermia in adults are shivering, confusion, memory loss, drowsiness, exhaustion, slurred speech, puffy face, shallow breathing, a slow heartbeat and weak pulse. Infants who are suffering from hypothermia may appear to have very low energy and bright red, cold skin.

If you suspect a person is suffering from hypothermia, remove all wet clothing and place the person in dry blankets and clothing. Move the person to a warm indoors location, and give them a warm beverage. Seek medical attention to determine if further treatment is required.

"Frostbite is another cold weather concern, and is especially dangerous because it often happens with little warning," said Huang. "People working or playing outdoors during the winter can develop frostbite and not even know it."

Numbness can occur so quickly that the individual, unaware of being frostbitten, may remain outside, increasing the chance of permanent damage. Older persons and those with diabetes are especially vulnerable to frostbite because of impaired circulation. There is no pain associated with the early stages of frostbite, so people should be aware of these danger signs:

  • First, the skin may feel numb and become flushed. Then, it turns white or grayish-yellow. Frostbitten skin feels cold to the touch.

  • If frostbite is suspected, move the victim to a warm area. Cover the affected area with something warm and dry. Never rub it!

  • Then, get to a doctor or hospital as quickly as possible.

In high wind conditions, cold weather-related health problems are much more likely. Be sure the outer layer of clothing is tightly woven to reduce body-heat loss caused by wind. If you will be spending time outside, do not ignore shivering--it is an important first sign that the body is losing heat and a signal to quickly return indoors.

Since cold weather puts an extra burden on the heart, if you have cardiac problems or high blood pressure, follow your doctor's orders about shoveling or performing any strenuous exercise outside. Even otherwise-healthy adults should remember that their bodies are already working overtime just to stay warm. Dress appropriately and work slowly when doing heavy outdoor chores.

Parents should make sure that children playing outside in the snow wear many layers of clothing and boots, a hat and mittens.

"One of the best ways to stay warm is to wear a hat;" said Huang. "Most body heat is lost through the top of the head."

For more tips on staying warm in the cold weather, visit the New York State Department of Health Web site at http://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/emergency/weather/cold/cold_weather_tips.htm


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