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Winter Weather Hazards

Jan 25, 2019

This past week, we’ve been reminded just how “special” a New England winter can be.  I’m so thankful that Gloucester did not receive the 12 to 18 inches of snow, followed by freezing rain that I saw forecast a couple days before the storm.  Can you imagine the mess we would have if that had happened?  Nonetheless, the cold and icy conditions have made the past week a challenge to most of us. 

When the temperature drops, older adults have a higher risk of weather related health problems and injuries. According to the National Institute on Aging, older adults lose body heat faster than when they were young. Hypothermia and frostbite can turn into a serious problem before you realize what is happening. And then there is always the danger of falling on the ice or sustaining an injury while shoveling snow. Regardless of age this can be an issue. But older people and those who have mobility issues are certainly more prone to slipping on the ice or getting hurt while shoveling.

There are a few precautions everyone should take during the New England winter months, especially older adults.

Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops to a dangerous level. Being outdoors for extended periods of time when it is cold can cause your body temperature to drop.

Here are some warning signs of hypothermia:

  • Your skin becomes cold to the touch and pale or ashy
  • You feel tired, confused and sleepy
  • Feelings of muscle weakness
  • Problems walking
  • Your breathing and heart rate slows

You can also take precautions such as stay indoors (or don’t stay outside for too long), keep your heat at 65 degrees or higher, stay dry – wet clothing chills your body more quickly, and dress smart. Wear layers and loose-fitting clothing. Wear a hat, gloves, warm winter coat, warm boots, and a scarf to cover your mouth and nose.

Frostbite occurs when skin is exposed to the cold for too long. It is most likely to occur in body parts farthest away from the heart, such as the ears, nose, cheeks, chin fingers and toes. People with heart disease and circulation problems are more prone to frostbite. Because it can cause numbness, you may not realize you have it.

Signs and symptoms of frostbite include:

  • At first, cold skin and a prickling feeling
  • Numbness
  • Red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin
  • Hard or waxy looking skin
  • Joint and muscle stiffness
  • After re-warming, blistering

If you suspect frostbite you can run the affected area under warm water (not hot).

You should call for medical help if you suspect you or someone else may have hypothermia or frostbite.

Snow is almost a certain this time of year, and with snow comes shoveling. You may want to check with your healthcare provider to determine if shoveling or other work in the snow is safe for you. It is important to remember that when it is cold out, your heart works harder.

It is easy to fall in the winter, especially in icy and snowy conditions. Make sure steps and walkways are clear before you walk. Salting the walkways is key to helping to avoid winter falls. I recently learned that crampons are available for everyday use.  You may have seen pictures of mountain climbers wearing special footwear with spikes to grab the ice.  You can purchase a similar item that slides over your shoe to help you walk safely in slippery conditions.  Several local hardware stores carry these and you can also find them online.

If you use a cane, you’ll want to make sure the rubber tip is up to the task. You may also consider an ice pick-like attachment for the end of your cane for additional traction.    

As the cold winter months are upon us, take the time to consider how to stay safe and enjoy the season.