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Winter Health Concerns and Safety Tips

Many of us may not pay attention to the importance of safety in nasty weather. Our health correspondent Dr. Emily Senay addresses some health risks during winter including problems with snow shoveling, carbon monoxide poisoning and keeping your car prepared in case you get stranded in cold weather.

Why Does Snow-Shoveling Safety Come at the Top of the List?

Interestingly, the heart attack rate in cold climate areas in winter increases significantly. One study in the New England Journal of Medicine says that snow shoveling is associated with a 69% increase in winter heart attacks. Shoveling snow is a very demanding aerobic activity, more so than the average aerobic workout. Also, the cold weather itself may play a role, further constricting already constricted arteries. If you are at high risk for heart attack and not used to such vigorous exercise, you need to listen to your body and take it slow.

Wear layers that you can remove as you get warmer; drink fluids; take breaks to rest; lift small amounts of snow at a time; use a snow blower if possible. If you get chest pain, shortness of breath or excessive sweating, stop and get immediate help. The other thing you need to pay attention to when shoveling snow is the back--make sure you're lifting with your legs and not your back.

Isn't There An Overall Increase In Winter Heart Attacks -- Or Is It Just In Snowy Areas?

No, there is an increase nationwide, including Sunbelt areas like Florida. Some health experts attribute the phenomenon to inactivity during winter months-- Americans are much less likely to exercise during the winter, no matter where they live, holiday stress, or seasonal depression.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Is Another Big Winter Hazard In Cold Climates... How Can It Be Prevented?

The problem with this is carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can be deadly. Symptoms include weakness, dizziness and nausea. On average, 250 people die a year in this country from carbon monoxide poisoning. Most of these deaths are avoidable by following safety measures.

First of all, do not use a stove or oven to heat your home. If using a space heater or kerosene heater, make sure the room is well ventilated. Do not use gasoline- powered generators or motors in confined area, and make sure appliances and furnaces are working properly. In fact, homeowners should check the furnace every fall. And finally, every home should have carbon monoxide detectors close to bedrooms.

Some people may not be used to snow if they are new to a cold climate, new drivers, or if they're in areas that don't usually get snow, but occasionally get a heavy snowfall every few years. And people may already know this stuff, but this is a reminder that everyone has a lot to worry about this time of year, so in case they've forgotten:

The American Automobile Association (AAA) recommends that drivers keep an emergency kit in the ar throughout the winter in case you get stranded in a snowstorm. The emergency kit should include a flashlight, extra batteries, a blanket, extra hat and mittens, an ice scraper, booster cables, kitty litter (to get traction if stuck in the snow).

If you do get stranded, remember if it's snowing hard, stay with the car, because it's very easy to get disoriented in a blizzard, and make sure the exhaust pipe is free of ice and snow to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, and tie a bright cloth on the antenna. If you're not confident of your ability to drive in nasty weather, practice for awhile on a side street or an empty parking lot. Also, remember that no matter how experienced a driver you are, and what kind of car you're driving, you should always go slowly in heavy snowfall. And Lastly, Exposure To The Elements As basic as it sounds, you have to watch for signs of hypothermia and frostbite if you're spending a lot of time outside in cold weather, or if you're in wet clothes in he cold. Symptoms of hypothermia are shivering, or drowsiness, slurred speech and disorientation. To treat the condition, the victim should be removed from the cold and wet clothing, warm the body first, and extremities second. If awake, give victim decaffeinated, non-alcoholic beverages and keep victim awake.

With frostbite, you'll notice a discoloration of the affected areas. These should be covered, warmed slowly and gently, and do not rub. If there's a chance of continued exposure to cold, do not warm up the affected area, because re-freezing of frostbite causes more damage.
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