Health and Safety Precautions for Cold Weather Months

Contact: James McCurtis (517) 241-2112
Agency: Community Health

December 17, 2008

Winter in Michigan is a celebrated season despite the extreme drops in temperature posing serious risks and hazards. To combat these potential dangers, there are specific guidelines citizens can follow to stay safe and healthy throughout the cold weather months.

Be extremely careful if you use a wood stove, fireplace or space heater in your home. Always keep a multipurpose, dry chemical fire extinguisher near the area you are heating. Do not burn paper in your fireplace or wood stove and do not leak flue gas indoors. If you are using an indoor gas heater, be sure it is located in a well-ventilated space and only use the type of fuel recommended by the manufacturer.

Regardless of the type of heating device you are using, be sure that it is up to date and meets all safety standards. Toxic fumes, such as carbon monoxide, from old or faulty heaters can cause unconsciousness or death from lack of oxygen.

While inside, monitor the indoor temperature carefully. Because they lose body heat much faster than adults, infants should never sleep in a cold room. It is also necessary for older adults to take extra home heating precautions, as they tend to have slower metabolisms and therefore make and retain less heat than other adults.

If you are caring for an infant or senior citizen, be sure to frequently check that their homes are adequately heated. If heating is not at a safe level, making alternative housing arrangements is recommended.

When the weather is extremely cold, and especially if there are high winds, try to stay indoors. Making trips outside as brief as possible can help to reduce the potential dangers associated with cold weather.

To remain healthy and safe this winter, please follow these cold-weather tips while outdoors:

- Dress warmly and stay dry: Be sure to dress in layers in wind resistant clothing. Wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers will hold more body heat than cotton. If your clothing is wet, go inside as soon as possible. When inside, remove the wet clothing as soon as possible.

- Avoid exertion: Cold weather can put extra strain on the heart. If you have heart disease or high blood pressure, follow your doctor's advice about shoveling snow or other hard work in the cold. The body is already working hard to stay warm, so extra work can cause an overload.

- Cover exposed skin: Always wear a warm hat that covers ears, gloves or mittens that cover the full wrist, and a scarf or ski mask to protect face and neck.

- Be Safe During Recreation: Notify friends and family where you will be before you go hiking, camping, or skiing. Avoid perspiring or becoming overtired. Be prepared to take emergency shelter. Pack dry clothing, a two-wave radio, waterproof matches and paraffin fire starters with you. Do not use alcohol and other mood altering substances, and avoid caffeinated beverages. Carefully watch for signs of cold-weather health problems.

It is important to be aware of any changes in exposed skin during cold weather periods. Frostbite and hypothermia are very serious conditions that can be lessoned by early recognition and treatment. Shivering can be a good indicator that it's time to go in, as it is the first sign that the body is losing heat.

Frostbitten skin is hard, pale, cold and has no feeling. When the frostbitten skin is in warm air, it will become red and painful. Very severe frostbite can cause blisters, gangrene (blackened dead tissue), and deep tissue damage in tendons, muscles, nerves and bones.

Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition that is caused by short exposure to extreme cold or long exposure to mild cold. Symptoms of hypothermia include trembling, stiffness of muscles, puffiness in the face, poor coordination, confusion, and low consciousness and reactivity.

If you suspect frostbite, hypothermia or other complications surrounding extreme weather, seek emergency medical care immediately.