|

5 cold-weather health hazards, and how to stay safe

Consumer Reports News: January 08, 2010 06:32 PM

We’re just a month into winter and already the nation has had record-breaking snow, winds, and low temperatures. And while the crisp air and snow-covered trees can paint a pleasant wintry picture, cold weather can also bring with it some not-so-pleasant dangers. Frigid temperatures can pose risks for illness and injury for everyone, but particularly vulnerable populations are young children, older adults, and the chronically ill. Here are some top cold-weather dangers to be aware of, and some smart ways to protect yourself and your family:

1. Hypothermia

In the United States, about 700 deaths occur each year from hypothermia. Hypothermia happens when your body temperature drops to 95 degrees F (35 degrees C) or less and can be fatal if its not detected promptly and treated properly. While hypothermia can happen to anyone, the elderly run the highest risk because their bodies often do not adjust to changes in temperature quickly and they may be unaware that they are gradually getting colder.

What to watch for: If you have hypothermia, you'll first feel cold, shiver, and seem socially withdrawn. As the condition worsens, you can become confused, sleepy, and slur your speech. In the most severe stage, the heart can slow down dangerously.

Stay-safe tips: To prevent hypothermia, wear warm, multi-layered clothing with good hand and feet protection and a warm hat or hood. If you notice symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends seeking medical attention immediately. If medical attention is not available, remove any clothing that's wet, and wrap up in a warm blanket to prevent further heat loss. Warm beverages may help increase the body temperature, but do not drink alcoholic beverages. Also, do not take a hot shower or bath, because it can cause shock.

2. Colds and flu

Each year, adults get an average of about three colds every year, and 1 in 5 adults will get the flu. Although colds and flu aren’t specific to cold-weather months, they're both more prevalent during winter. One Welsh study suggests that cold temperatures can actually lead to a cold by limiting the supply of infection-fighting white blood cells in the nasal passage, where cold viruses most often enter the body. And research shows that the flu virus is more stable and stays in the air longer when air is cold and dry.

What to watch for: It’s often difficult to know whether you have a cold or the flu, because the symptoms can be similar. At the onset of a cold, you may feel a dry, scratchy sore throat, sneezing, a headache, runny nose with watery mucus, watery eyes, chills, and a fever. Later symptoms can include a blocked nose, sinus pain, a cough that keep you awake at night, muscle aches and pains, tiredness, and loss of appetite. Flu symptoms are normally worse than and come on more quickly than cold symptoms and include a fever of about 100 degrees to 104 degrees F, a dry cough, muscle aches, headache, a stopped up nose, sore throat, and feeling extremely tired.

Stay-safe tips: With a cold, you may feel quite sick for a couple of days, but your symptoms should clear up in a week to 10 days. And most people recover from the flu within a week. Of course, both will very likely need to be treated by medicines. There’s no cure for a cold, but taking cold medicines may help lessen your symptoms while your body fights off the virus. Take a look at our recommendations for what cold medicines work best (subscribers only). Be sure to steer clear of antibiotics--they don't work for viruses and they have side effects. For flu, a flu shot will help your body fight off the flu virus, but if you already have the virus, the CDC recommends zanamivir (Relenza), an inhaled drug, for treating seasonal flu in people age 7 and older or a combination of oseltamivir and rimantadine.

3. Frostbite

Frostbite can cause a loss of feeling and color in the affected areas, such as the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage body tissue, and severe cases can lead to amputation. In extremely cold temperatures, the risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and when people are not dressed properly.

What to watch for: Signs of frostbite include reduced blood flow to hands and feet (fingers or toes can freeze), numbness, tingling or stinging, aching, and bluish or pail, waxy skin.

Stay-safe tips: To prevent frostbite, wear warm clothing and dress in layers when you plan to be outdoors for an extended amount of time, and keep dry (wet clothes increase chance of heat loss). If you notice the signs of frostbite, get into a warm room as soon as possible. Immerse the affected area in warm water or warm it area using body heat. Avoid rubbing or massaging the frostbitten area; doing so may cause more damage. And do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming since affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.

4. Depression

About 5 percent of Americans, three-quarters of them women, experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) each year, a type of depression that typically occurs during the cold-weather months.

Signs to watch for: Some symptoms are similar to those associated with other types of depression: sadness, fatigue, excessive sleepiness, social withdrawal, and trouble concentrating. But people with SAD also tend to move slowly, crave carbohydrates, and gain weight. And they're less likely than people with conventional depression to have feelings of worthlessness or thoughts of suicide.

Stay-safe tips: If suspect you’re suffering from SAD, the nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics has an online questionnaire that can help you determine whether you have it. For mild cases, doing 60 minutes of outdoor aerobic exercise in the morning might bring some relief. For more persistent cases, talk to our doctor about therapies, including light therapy and antidepressants. Other treatment options include cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which you learn to ward off negative thoughts about the season and work on finding enjoyable activities. That kind of therapy might also help prevent a recurrence.

5. Heart Attacks

It’s true that there are numerous risk factors for heart attack, including having high cholesterol, being male, and smoking cigarettes, but did you know heart attacks are more common in winter? This may be because cold snaps increase blood pressure and put more strain on the heart. Also, your heart also has to work harder to maintain body heat when it's cold.

What to watch for: The warning signs for a heart attack include, chest pain (though not always), shortness of breath, sudden fatigue or dizziness, sweating, nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, blue tinge to your skin.

Stay-safe tips: Bundle up outside and take it easy when exerting yourself in the cold to help prevent a heart attack. If the symptoms we mentioned above strike, don’t ignore them; call 911 immediately.

Ginger Skinner

See our tips for safer winter workouts and find out how to be fully prepared for a winter emergency

   

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Health News

Connect

and safety with
subscribers and fans

Follow us on:

Cars

Cars New Car Price Report
Find out what the dealers don't want you to know! Get dealer pricing information on a new car with the New Car Price Report.

Order Your Report

Mobile

Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more