Staying safe in cold weather

By Brittany Wagner

San Antonians don’t have a lot of experience with cold weather. Last February, we all experienced the worst that winter could bring to the region. While a winter storm of that magnitude is unlikely to happen again and cold fronts don't usually bring hazardous conditions, it is always best to be prepared. Learn how to dress for colder weather, how to keep your family safe from carbon monoxide and how to properly use a generator.

How to Layer Your Clothing

When dressing for colder weather, you want to have three basic layers:

  1. Base layer for wicking away sweat (light polyester)
  2. Middle layer to insulate your body heat (fleece, down or flannel)
  3. Outer layer to shield you from rain and wind (windbreaker or rain jacket)

Don’t forget your cold-weather accessories. You will also need:

  • Hat that covers your ears
  • Gloves (waterproof if it’s snowing or raining)
  • Waterproof, insulated boots

Staying Warm 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

How to Use a Generator

When the power went out across Texas last February, many people were left without electricity or heat for days. We couldn’t use the microwave, turn on the lights or charge our phones. A portable emergency generator could provide the power you need until the grid returns to normal.

If you choose to buy a portable generator for your home, remember to NEVER run it inside the house or enclosed garage. Generators produce carbon monoxide gas, which can be deadly. According to Consumer Reports, between 2005 and 2017, 900 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Generator safety tips

  • Never run the generator in your house or any enclosed space, including your garage
  • Keep the generator running at least 20 feet away from your home
  • Point the exhaust fumes away from your home
  • Don’t run the generator in the rain
  • Keep extra fuel on hand

Prevent 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 covering 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 Injuries

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

You may sustain any of these injuries while shoveling snow, slipping on ice or even falling from a ladder while taking down 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 and frostbite.

Hypothermia

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

Frostbite

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)

Prevent Cold-Weather Injuries

Prevent hypothermia and frostbite 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 keep an eye on your coworkers and tell a supervisor if you notice signs of illness.

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.

University Health Is Here for You

The health care 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 the highest quality medical attention when you need it.


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