Whether you love a visit from old man winter or hate the guy, knowing how to stay safe in cold, stormy weather takes some common sense and preparation.
Here are some top cold-weather health hazards you'll want to avoid, and tips on how to manage if you find yourself or someone nearby in danger:
Hypothermia strikes when your body is exposed to cold temperatures and begins to lose heat faster than you can produce it, leading your body temperature to drop abnormally low. Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If it dips to under 95 degrees, emergency medical care is needed, the CDC says.
Just last week, an elderly Georgia woman died after she slipped and fell outside her home while trying to help her disabled husband. Both lay helpless outdoors through the frigid night, and only the husband survived, probably because he was dressed in warmer clothing.
Dr. Rebecca Parker, a Chicago area emergency physician and president-elect of the American College of Emergency Physicians said alcohol and cold weather are also a dangerous mix.
"Do not drink and go out in the cold. The idea of a hot toddy outside is not a good one. Alcohol affects your circulation and dampens your awareness of what's going on around you. It makes hypothermia worse," she said.
One of the early signs of hypothermia is, in fact, confusion, she said. Older people suffering from Alzheimer's can be particularly vulnerable because they already have trouble thinking clearly. One elderly Chicago woman with Alzheimer's was recently found frozen to death right outside her door with her keys in the door, Parker said.
In extreme weather, she said, "We have to keep a close eye on our elderly population."
The young are also at risk, she said. Last year, a Wisconsin toddler wandered outside to play in the snow on a cold night and froze to death.
"Make sure you lock your doors at night and that the locks are high so toddlers can't get to them," Parker advised.
Babies sleeping in cold rooms can also be at risk for hypothermia, according to the CDC. And don't neglect to bring your pets indoors during severe winter weather.
If someone is showing signs of hypothermia, the CDC says to:
- Move the victim into a warm room or shelter.
- Remove any wet clothing.
- Warm the center of the body first -- chest, neck, head, and groin area -- using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
- Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
- After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
- Get medical attention as soon as possible.
Colorless, numb nose, ears, cheeks, chins, fingers, and toes are frostbite warning signs -- when your body parts are actually freezing. It can cause permanent damage and you need to head to an emergency room if you think you or someone with you has frostbite.
"Frostbite is in your extremities," said Parker. People playing in the snow can get it easily because of cold, wet clothes.
Get out of the cold if you're experiencing redness or pain in any skin area because frostbite might be beginning to set in. White or grayish-yellow skin, or waxy-looking skin, can be a sign of it, too.
"Take off all wet cold clothes. Warming, rapid warming is needed. Don't rub it. Get into warm water -- about 100 degrees Fahrenheit -- the temperature of a warm to hot bath," recommended Parker.
The CDC says you can warm the affected area using body heat -- the warmth of an armpit can be used to warm fingers, for example.
Don't try to walk on frostbitten toes and avoid using a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
Slipping on ice
Parker said she sees lots of ice-related falls in the Chicago emergency department where she works. Broken ankles in high heel wearers and broken hips in the elderly are a particular worry.
"People wear the wrong kind of shoe gear. Women trying to wear high heels and going to work in a snowy area. Wear good shoe garb," she recommended.
Shovel driveways and paths clear so things don't freeze over, Parker added.
But shoveling can create other health hazards.
When it comes to shoveling ice and snow, the Mayo Clinic recommends dressing warmly in a few layers of clothing, and stretching and warming up beforehand to reduce muscle injury. Mayo says to be heart conscious, too; talk with your doctor beforehand if you have a history of heart problems, because every year the strain of shoveling snow is linked to heart attacks in people who may not be used to that level of exertion.
While shoveling, protect your back by bending at the knees, not the back. Stand with your feet hip-width apart for balance and keep the shovel close to your body. Don't try to pick up too much snow at once.
Also, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Driving in snow and ice
Almost 6,000 people are killed and over 445,000 people are injured in weather-related crashes each year, according to data analyzed by Booz Allen Hamilton, based on information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The American Automobile Association's website abounds with winter weather advice for drivers. Some key recommendations:
- Stay put at home if it's not essential to be driving in snowy, stormy, icy weather.
- If you must drive, watch weather reports prior to driving, especially a long distance trip, or before driving in isolated areas, so you know about delays and what to expect regarding conditions.
- Don't drive when you're sleepy or fatigued.
- Don't drink and drive.
- Let others know your route, destination and estimated time of arrival.
- Make sure your vehicle is in peak operating condition.
- Fill 'er up. Keep at least half a tank of gasoline in your vehicle at all times.
- Drive slowly and accelerate and decelerate slowly.
- Keep a mobile phone on hand.
- Pack blankets, gloves, hats, food, water and any needed medication in your vehicle.
If you are involved in an accident or become snow-bound:
- Stay with your vehicle. It provides temporary shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to locate you. Don't try to walk in a severe storm. It's easy to lose sight of your vehicle in blowing snow and become lost.
- Don't over-exert yourself if you try to push or dig your vehicle out of the snow.
- Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna or place a cloth at the top of a rolled-up window to signal distress.
- At night, keep the dome light on if possible. It only uses a small amount of electricity and will make it easier for rescuers to find you.
- Make sure the exhaust pipe isn't clogged with snow, ice or mud. A blocked exhaust could cause deadly carbon monoxide gas to leak into the passenger compartment with the engine running.
Heat safety in winter
Even if your plan is to cozy up at home, the Red Cross warns trying to stay warm on frigid days and nights comes with a few risks, too.
Never using a kitchen stove to heat your home. And never operate a generator inside the home, including in the basement or garage, as the exhaust can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Don't hook a generator up to your home's wiring. The safest approach: connect the equipment you want to power directly to the outlets on the generator.
Be cautious when using space heaters. Place space heaters on a level, hard surface and keep anything flammable at least three feet away, such as paper, clothing, bedding, curtains or rugs. Make sure space heaters are turned off before leaving the room or going to bed.
If you are using a fireplace, use a glass or metal fire screen large enough to catch sparks and rolling logs. Make sure embers are entirely out before heading to bed.