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January 4, 1999

Don't Let Winter Stop You Cold

Watch out for the three common hazards of winter.
Columbus, OH (SafetyAlerts) - Snow shoveling, hypothermia, and frostbite are three of the more common dangers associated with winter weather. The Ohio Department of Health offers the following information to help make this winter season safer.

Snow Shoveling Can Be Life-Threatening
Snow shoveling is strenuous, and people not used to such physical exertion may put themselves in a life-threatening situation when clearing sidewalks and driveways, according to J. Nick Baird, state health director.

Each shovel full of dry snow weighs about four pounds, plus the weight of the shovel; wet snow can easily double this weight or more. In addition, breathing cold air constricts small blood vessels through which blood passes away from the heart. While this action reduces the loss of body heat, the heart must work harder to pump blood through more narrow arteries.

Here are some tips to make shoveling snow safer:

NEVER smoke while shoveling. Tobacco smoke constricts blood vessels just as cold air does; and the combination can be dangerous.

Shovel snow before eating; or wait an hour after eating.

If you become short of breath while shoveling, stop and rest. If you feel pain or tightness in your chest, stop immediately.

Have a partner monitor your progress and share the workload. If a heart attack happens, they can call for help or, if trained, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation until help arrives.

If you have a known health problem, use a snow blower or hire a snow removal service. However, pushing snow blowers through heavy, packed snow can also present a risk -- don’t assume using a snow blower alone will eliminate your risk. Use common sense.

Some risk factors, such as gender (males are at increased risk) and age can't be changed. Others, such as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a sedentary lifestyle can be changed.

The Ohio Department of Health reminds people that a regular exercise program will reduce the risk of a heart attack from physical exertion. Anyone over age 30 who is considering a regular exercise program should always consult their physician before they start such a program.

Hypothermia: A Quiet Killer
The elderly, especially those living alone, are particularly vulnerable in the winter to hypothermia, a condition in which the internal body temperature drops abnormally low. Hypothermia occurs when the internal body temperature falls to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or below. This can result in cardiac problems, respiratory difficulties, and even death.

Anyone can become a victim of hypothermia, but people who react abnormally to the cold, already suffer from an illness, or take medications which interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature, are more susceptible.

Hypothermia can be prevented by wearing warm clothing and keeping living and sleeping areas heated to at least 65 degrees. Individuals should also maintain a proper diet, and exercise regularly. Because hypothermia may begin during sleep or other periods of limited activity, it is important to dress warmly and use enough blankets.

Early detection of hypothermia improves the chances for a safe and speedy recovery. Here are some symptoms to watch for:

Changes in appearance or behavior;
Uncontrolled shivering;
Stiff muscles;
A slow, possibly irregular, heartbeat;
Slurred speech;
Shallow, slow breathing;
Lack of coordination and sluggishness.
The most accurate way to detect hypothermia is to check the body temperature with a low-reading thermometer.

When hypothermia is suspected, immediately begin first aid and seek emergency medical assistance. Keep the victim warm with blankets. If the victim is alert, give small quantities of warm food or drink. Never give liquids or food to someone who is unconscious because they may choke. Never give them alcoholic beverages.

How To Recognize, Prevent Frostbite
According to the Department of Health, keep the skin protected from the cold and wind by wearing warm, windproof clothing. Be sure clothes and shoes are loose enough to allow blood to circulate freely; restricted circulation, fatigue, poor nutrition, drinking alcohol, and smoking, all may contribute to frostbite.

Frostbite varies in severity from frostnip to deep frostbite, depending on the length of exposure, the temperature to which the skin is exposed, and wind speed:

During frostnip, the skin turns white and may be slightly numb. A person usually feels no pain at this stage.

Superficial frostbite involves the skin and tissues beneath the surface. The skin appears white, waxy and firm, although the tissue beneath it remains soft.
Deep frostbite involves skin, tissue, muscle and bone.
What To Do

Frost-nip can usually be reversed without permanent damage. Firm, steady pressure from a warm hand, blowing on the surface, or holding the frost-nipped area against the body, will help re-warm it. Do NOT: rub the area; apply snow; or plunge it into very hot or cold water.

People suffering from superficial frostbite should come in from the cold and re-warm the affected parts of the body. Stinging, burning pain and superficial blisters may occur. The area may become permanently red and extremely sensitive if again exposed to the cold.

Victims of deep frostbite must receive prompt medical attention. The exposed area should be handled gently and protected while the victim is transported to a medical facility.

If treatment is delayed for more than one hour, injured extremities should be immersed in water warmed to between 100 and 105 degrees (F). The container should be large enough so the affected area does not touch the sides or bottom. Deep frostbite is likely to cause permanent damage.

By keeping in mind the potential dangers of snow shoveling, hypothermia, and frostbite, you can help make this winter a healthier and safer time for you and your loved ones.

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