BROOKLYN, NY (January 26, 2011) – As we all endure this record-breaking winter, experts at Maimonides Medical Center have some advice for keeping your family safe and warm. “During the cold winter months, we are faced with low temperatures that can present certain health risks,” says John Marshall, MD, Chair of Emergency Medicine at Maimonides, “but with the proper knowledge and precautions, most pain and suffering can be prevented.”
“There are clear dangers to being outside in the cold,” Dr. Marshall explains. “It’s best to limit your outdoor activity as much as possible, since prolonged exposure can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. Both of these conditions can become serious, and even life-threatening if untreated. However, there are many simple safeguards that can prevent such severe injury.”
- Dress warmly. Layering your clothing will provide the best insulation and retain body heat. Wearing a non-permeable outer layer will minimize the effects of strong winds.
- Protect your extremities. Hands and feet are at greater risk of frostbite because body heat is naturally reserved in the torso to protect the vital organs. So wear an extra pair of socks, and choose mittens instead of gloves because fingers stay warmer when next to each other.
- Wear properly-fitted winter boots. Boots that are too tight can limit or cut-off circulation to the feet and toes. Also, choose a boot that is insulated and has treads on the bottom – treads provide traction on ice and snow.
- Cover your head and neck. Wearing a hat will help you stay warm and also protect your ears. A scarf adds warmth to the neck and chest area, and can be pulled upward to protect your face from cold winds.
- Stay hydrated. The body uses a lot of energy to keep itself warm. Drinking plenty of fluids is important because your body will need frequent replenishing when fighting off the cold.
- Change out of wet clothing as soon as possible.
When a person is outdoors, the part of their skin exposed to the cold will chill rapidly. Blood flow decreases and body temperature drops. A person is then vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia. According to Dr. Marshall, “It starts with tingling or stinging sensations. The face, fingers, and toes are the first body parts to be affected. Then muscles and other tissues can become numb.” Additional signs of frostbite include redness and pain in the skin – this can progress to discolored and numb skin.
Hypothermia, which often accompanies frostbite, can affect the brain, hindering one’s ability to think clearly and make wise decisions. Warning signs of Hypothermia include shivering, confusion, slurred speech and drowsiness. Infants can exhibit bright red or cold skin, and lethargy. “If any of these symptoms become noticeable, you should protect the exposed skin, get to a warm place and seek immediate medical treatment,” says Dr. Marshall.
Some people—namely the elderly, those with diabetes, heart, or circulatory problems, and those who use alcohol, caffeine, or other drugs that inhibit the body’s response to cold, may be especially vulnerable in chilly weather.
“Children are also a high-risk group,” cautions Dr. Marshall. “They are smaller and therefore lose body heat more rapidly than adults do. Children can be so busy playing outdoors that they may not realize just how cold they really are. So, be sure they are properly dressed, tell them to come indoors when their clothes get wet, and if they aren’t active and moving around to keep warm, then they should come back inside. Keep an eye on children – it can take minutes for them to suffer frostbite to exposed skin on a very cold or windy day.”
Dr. Marshall also notes there can be risks associated with being indoors in cold weather, especially if one’s home is not heated safely. “Don’t use a kerosene heater. It could easily cause a fire. And don’t use the oven as a source of heat,” he warns. “The gas can produce carbon monoxide, and carbon monoxide is deadly. Be sure there is one carbon monoxide detector in your home and a smoke detector on every level of your home. Also, be sure to change the batteries every year. Your birthday is a good time to do that.”
Now celebrating its Centennial, Maimonides Medical Center is among the largest independent teaching hospitals in the nation – training over 450 interns, residents and fellows annually. Widely recognized for its major achievements in advancing medical and information technology, Maimonides has 711 beds and over 70 subspecialty programs. For more information on the state-of-the-art clinical services at Maimonides Medical Center, please visit www.maimonidesmed.org.