Walking in a winter wonderland can provide fun, exercise, and much-needed time in nature – as long as we’re careful and plan for the risks of exposure to cold temperatures. Much of the country has experienced blistering cold this winter, and there are a few things to keep in mind - both for ourselves and for our kids.
Frostbite occurs when skin or the tissue below it freezes. It’s more likely to affect the “things that stick out” – fingers, toes, ears, and nose. The affected spot will often hurt and look red at first, then go numb and turn pale or white as the frostbite worsens. If you suspect frostbite, get inside immediately and soak the area in warm (not hot! Just warm to touch) water for 20-30 minutes. If the area doesn’t start to feel normal within a few minutes, seek medical attention.
This happens when the body’s core temperature drops below normal. First people may start shivering, but then they can become sluggish, clumsy, or confused. Hypothermia is a medical emergency! If you suspect it, first call 911 and get the person indoors right away, then remove any wet clothing and wrap them in blankets or warm clothes. If they are alert, have them drink warm fluids as well. Someone with suspected hypothermia should always be seen right away by a doctor.
Kids are more at risk because their bodies are smaller and lose heat more quickly, and they often don’t have as much “insulation” as adults do. They may not be able to communicate as well, and also don’t tend to recognize the earliest signs of cold injuries. Elderly people can be at risk for these same reasons.
Non-direct cold injuries
There are other winter-time risks that doctors worry about. Some of these are obvious, like broken bones from slipping on ice - older adults are particularly at risk because of decreased balance and bone density. Other things, like an increased risk of heart attack, may not be so obvious. Your heart has to work harder in the cold weather, and people may also be doing more physically taxing things like walking through heavy, wet snow or shoveling it. Move slowly, take breaks, and pay close attention to your body. Those with cardiovascular disease should be especially careful in cold weather.
As with most things medical, the best way to deal with cold-related injury is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Avoid being outside in areas with a temperature or wind chill below -15° - skin can freeze in minutes in temperatures that cold. Wear lots of thin layers, and choose insulated boots, gloves, and hats. Kids need extra coverage – we usually recommend one more layer than an adult would need to stay warm. If clothing gets wet, change into dry items right away. Come inside regularly to warm up, and assess younger children frequently for signs of cold.
One final tip – it’s also important to remember not to put babies or kids in a car seat with thick, bulky gear on - it means the safety straps may not fit them properly. Although it's a small hassle, it's much safer to put them in the car wearing regular clothes and then tuck a blanket or warm coat over their body until you get to your destination.