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Ten Hot Tips to Avoid Frostbite on Cold Days

January 7th 2015

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After a warm December, winter returned with a vengeance this week to Michigan and the rest of the Midwest.

And as sure as snow in January, Dr. Brad Uren and his colleagues at the University of Michigan Department of Emergency Medicine have started to see the first patients suffering the effects of super-cold weather.

He’s got the inside track on winter weather – after all, he was born and raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Here’s what he wishes everyone would do, to stay healthy – and stay out of the emergency department this winter. Some of his tips may surprise you!

1: Cover up: The colder it gets, and the faster the wind blows, the more likely you are to suffer frostbite on exposed or poorly protected skin.

“Wind chill/frostbite chartEveryone has their blind spot,” says Uren, “like wearing driving gloves to shovel or shoes that have no insulation. Cover up everything in a way that’s appropriate to what you’ll be doing outside.” This includes good footwear that will keep you upright when sidewalks start to freeze, and protect vulnerable toes.

One spot many folks forget to cover when outdoors in ultra-cold temperatures is the eyes – and the delicate skin around them can get frostbitten fast. Ski goggles and work goggles can cut the risk, and even regular eyeglasses offer some protection.

2: Consider other health factors: If you have asthma or other breathing issues, take steps to keep ultra-cold air from affecting you, for instance with a scarf. If you take medicine for high blood pressure, or other conditions, ask your doctor or pharmacist if your prescription might make you more susceptible to cold or even frostbite – some can. If you take blood thinners, a simple fall on the ice can cause a lot more damage for you than for others.

3: Don’t let fashion lead to frostbite: Teens and young adults often skip warmer clothes and coverings in the name of looking good, Uren says. And texting or using a smartphone outside can leave fingers dangerously exposed. When the temperature dips below freezing, fashion should take a back seat to safety. Besides, puffy parkas are back in this year. And you can stash the smartphone in a coat pocket until you get inside.

4: Protect the most vulnerable: The bodies of babies and young children, and older adults, can’t take as much cold as the rest of us – and people with special needs may not be able to recognize or act on cold-related ills. Now’s the time to volunteer to shovel that elderly neighbor’s sidewalk.

5: Slow down, for crying out loud: Whether you’re walking or driving, trying to hurry when it’s icy out can mean trouble. “People who are rushed, and unprepared for the weather, get in accidents simply because they’re in a hurry,” says Uren. “Build extra time in to your plans if you need to get somewhere by a certain time.”

6: Four wheel drive is great, but…: Too many ambulances arrive at the U-M emergency department carrying drivers of 4WD vehicles who had accidents when they couldn’t stop or negotiate a curve in time. “Four wheel drive helps you start, but it doesn’t help you stop, and nothing can help you if you’re traveling too fast for the conditions on the road,” Uren says.

7: Snowblowers are great, but…: When heavy snow falls, emergency doctors brace themselves for the aftermath: homeowners who reach into their clogged snowblowers to get them going again and… well, let’s just say it’s not pretty. Uren offers this advice: if your equipment came with a device designed for unclogging it, go find it now, read the owner’s manual, and follow the directions when the snow comes. Or if you don’t have a special device, at the very least make sure you’ve turned off the equipment, taken out the key, and are standing to the side when you reach in with a long pole to get it unstuck.

8: Don’t wait til your fingers turn white: White or painful fingers – and toes – mean your digits have already gotten so cold you’re in danger of frostbite.

The time to get somewhere warm is when you start to feel that your fingers are getting cold. 

9: Working out – or working – outdoors in bitter cold? Gimme a break: If you’re a runner, or exercise walker, or your job takes you outside, you can brave this weather with the right gear – and a little common sense. “Watch the wind chills, not just the temperature, and pay attention to what your body is telling you,” says Uren. Scale down the amount of time you spend outside. Take breaks, or bring part of your workout inside.

10: Eat, drink and be merry: Being outside in cold weather means your body has to work harder to keep your core temperature up. So, your calorie intake should increase to compensate, though that’s not an excuse to break your New Year’s weight loss resolution. The air is drier too, so drinking fluids, especially water, is important. But watch the booze: “Although alcohol is thought to make you warmer, it actually dilates the peripeheral blood vessels, so you lose heat faster and can risk injury faster,” says Uren.

These tips, and more available at the links below, should help keep you from having to pay Dr. Uren and his colleagues a visit this winter. After all, the emergency department is one warm place you don’t want to be.


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