Keeping yourself safe and healthy during cold weather

By Brittany Wagner

Living in South Texas, San Antonians don’t have a lot of experience with cold weather safety. When sidewalks get icy or you have no choice but to work outside in freezing temperatures, it’s important to understand your risk for injury in order to prevent it.

Equally important is knowing how to keep yourself safe and warm if you are somewhere with no electricity or heat.

Most injuries that directly result from cold or icy conditions can be attributed to slip and falls.

Some of the most common cold-weather injuries doctors treat are:

  • Broken bones
  • Head injuries
  • Concussions
  • Muscle strains
  • Ankle sprains
  • Back injuries

You may sustain any of these injuries while shoveling snow, slipping on ice, or even falling from a ladder while hanging holiday lights.

Working Outside In Cold Weather

People who work outside during cold weather, or even inside artificially cold environments such as commercial freezers, are at risk of suffering injuries that may permanently damage their skin or nerves. This might include police officers, farmers and sanitation workers. They are at a higher risk of developing hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot.


A combination of cold weather and wind or dampness can quickly lead to hypothermia. Temperatures in the 50s, when coupled with rain or high winds, can cause hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. During hypothermia, your body temperature drops from 98.6° F to 95° or lower.

Signs of hypothermia:

  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Loss of memory
  • Lack of coordination
  • Shivering
  • Loss of consciousness

Test your knowledge with our hypothermia quiz.


Frostbite usually affects your toes, fingers, ears, nose, cheeks and chin. Exposure to cold air and wind for too long can cause nerve damage to these parts of your body. If left untreated, frostbite can cause permanent damage to the tissue and nerves in the area.

Signs of frostbite:

  • Prickling feeling in the skin
  • Numbness, tingling or itching
  • Skin turns white
  • Skin appears hard or waxy
  • Blisters form when skin thaws (intermediate frostbite)

Trench foot

Though usually associated with soldiers in the trenches of WWI, trench foot still affects people today. It occurs when your feet are cold and damp for a long period of time, which can hinder blood flow to your feet. This might happen if you step in water or snow and don’t dry off your feet or change your shoes for the whole day. Your feet may look red or bluish in color and puckered or swollen. Trench foot can usually be treated by warming your feet gradually and keeping them dry.

Signs of trench foot:

  • Tingling, itching feet
  • Swelling of the feet
  • Numbness or heavy feeling
  • Redness, dryness after your feet warm up

Preventing Cold-Weather Injuries

Hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot can all be prevented by:

  • Wearing plenty of layers, including a hat, gloves, face covering and scarf
  • Taking frequent breaks in a warm, enclosed area
  • Staying dry and out of the wind when possible
  • Working during the warmest part of the day
  • Being aware of your symptoms before they worsen

It is also very important to stay vigilant of your coworkers and tell a supervisor if you notice signs of illness.

Cold weather safety when the power is out

Keeping yourself warm is the most important preventative measure you can take, but what if you lose power or heat during a storm or energy emergency?

There are ways to keep yourself warm for extended periods, including:

  • Wearing multiple layers of warm, loose-fitting clothing
  • Covering gaps in doors or windows with rolled-up towels
  • Closing rooms you are not using, especially if they share a wall with the outside
  • Huddling together with family in a small room

Preventing carbon monoxide poisoning

When the power goes out during cold weather, emergency responders see a spike in carbon-monoxide related illness and deaths. This is due largely to people using heat-generating appliances meant for outdoor operation inside their homes.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can kill you, so take these measures to prevent it:

  • Install a carbon monoxide detector in your home.
  • Place generators outside in a well-ventilated area. Generators should be more than 20 feet away from any window in your house.
  • Never use a gas grill, oven or other gas-fueled heat source to heat your home.
  • If you need to run your car to stay warm or charge a device, move your car outside first.
  • Check for ice and snow on your car’s tailpipe before starting the car.
  • Never run your car in a garage or other enclosed space.
  • Don’t burn anything in a fireplace other than firewood or other materials labeled safe for use indoors.
  • If using an indoor fireplace, make sure the flue is open and the chimney is cleared of debris, including snow and ice.

You can’t see, smell or taste carbon monoxide, so prevention is the only way to avoid poisoning. By the time you notice symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, it may already be too late. Signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness

If you notice any of these symptoms or think you may be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, move outside or to a well ventilated area and call 911 immediately.

Cold weather can be fun. Snowball fights and cuddling up by the fire are great ways to enjoy winter, but safety and injury prevention should be a top priority when cold weather arrives.

The healthcare professionals at University Health are prepared to treat an array of cold-weather injuries, including severe frostbite and hypothermia. Our emergency department is a Level 1 Trauma Center, prepared to provide you with the highest quality medical attention.

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