The Doctor is In: Be Safe in Winter Weather

Brigadier General W. Bryan Gamble, M.D., Deputy Director
TRICARE Management Activity 

Brigadier General W. Bryan Gamble, M.D. Deputy Director TRICARE Management Activity

Physical activity is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle and there are many fun and healthy activities during the winter months to get us up and moving. However, outdoor activities during the cold winter months can carry some risks.  Whether you are an avid snow skier, occasional snow shoveler, or just now getting outside as winter winds down and days get longer, there are some things you need to consider as the season changes.

The most dangerous situation people can encounter outside during the winter is hypothermia, this develops when your body temperature falls below normal due to cold exposure. Hypothermia often occurs when you spend prolonged periods outside in wet clothes or without the proper clothing to keep you warm.

Signs of hypothermia include low body temperature, severe and protracted shivering and lethargic or clumsy speech. If you see these signs in yourself or others, call 911 immediately, get indoors, remove any wet clothing, and wrap up in a dry blanket.

Another cold weather risk is frostbite. This is the freezing of skin and the body’s outer tissues, usually on fingers, toes, ears or nose. Frostbite can cause a burning or numb sensation and the affected area becomes pale, gray, and blistered.

The first thing you should know about treating frostbite is to not rub the affected area. Instead, soak the body part in warm water for five minutes then seek medical help if the normal feeling and color don’t return promptly.

As with hypothermia, severe frostbite may need immediate medical attention.

A simple solution for protecting against both hypothermia and frostbite is making sure you have the appropriate clothing for your outdoor activities.  Wear multiple layers, use wicking fabrics for the layer closest to your skin, and avoid clothing that holds moisture, like cotton t-shirts and jeans.  Protect against frostbite by wearing clothes that cover your extremities, such as hats, gloves and scarves. It’s also always a good idea to bring along an extra pair of dry socks.

Dehydration, often associated with hot conditions, is another overlooked danger in winter. It occurs when the body fluids get too low.  Symptoms include dizziness, headache and dark urine. Drinking fluids is usually sufficient to rehydrate you and frequent, small amounts are better than forcing large amounts of fluid at once.

To avoid dehydration, drink fluids before you leave the house and bring enough with you while you are outside. On an icy day, a thermos of soup or hot chocolate can make drinking liquids more appealing.

Despite the cold, sunburn is also a concern during the winter, especially when it reflects off of the snow. Cover exposed skin, wear sunscreen and use eye protection against glare.

Paying attention to the forecast and preparing for the cold are quick and easy steps you can take to protect yourself and others from winter weather – and avoid unnecessary trips to an urgent care center or emergency room.

For more information about cold-weather safety, visit: www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe.

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