Jan 15, 2014

Safety Tips for Extreme Cold Weather

As record low temperatures envelop the nation, it’s important to take cold weather safety precautions before venturing outside to avoid injury and stay safe. Below are some tips to help prevent frostbite, hypothermia, and other cold weather dangers.

Avoid Hypothermia and Frostbite

When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening, therefore won’t be able to do anything about it.

Hypothermia is most likely to be a danger at very cold temperatures, but it can also occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.

Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among those who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.

For more information about frostbite and hypothermia, see Stay Safe & Healthy.

Dress Warmly and Stay Dry

Adults and children should wear:

  • Several layers of loose-fitting clothing
  • Sleeves that are snug at the wrist
  • Water-resistant coat and boots
  • Hat
  • Scarf or knit mask to cover face and mouth
  • Mittens (they are warmer than gloves)

Be sure the outer layer of your clothing is tightly woven, and preferably wind resistant, to reduce body-heat loss caused by wind. Check the material:  wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton.

Stay dry—wet clothing chills the body rapidly. Excess perspiration will increase heat loss, so remove extra layers of clothing whenever you feel too warm. Also, avoid getting gasoline or alcohol on your skin while de-icing and fueling your car or using a snow blower. These materials in contact with the skin greatly increase heat loss from the body.

Do not ignore shivering. It’s an important first sign that the body is losing heat. Persistent shivering is a signal to return indoors.

Avoid Exertion

Cold weather puts an extra strain on the heart. If you have heart disease or high blood pressure, follow your doctor’s advice about shoveling snow or performing other hard work in the cold. Otherwise, if you have to do heavy outdoor chores, dress warmly and work slowly. Remember, your body is already working hard just to stay warm, so don’t overdo it.

Understand Wind Chill

The wind chill index is the temperature your body feels when the air temperature is combined with the wind speed. It is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by the effects of wind and cold. As the speed of the wind increases, it can carry heat away from your body much more quickly, causing skin temperature to drop. When there are high winds, serious weather-related health problems are more likely, even when temperatures are only cool.

Avoid Ice

Walking on ice is extremely dangerous. Many cold-weather injuries result from falls on ice-covered sidewalks, steps, driveways, and porches. Keep your steps and walkways as free of ice as possible by using rock salt or another chemical de-icing compound. Sand may also be used on walkways to reduce the risk of slipping.

Be Safe During Recreation

Notify friends and family where you will be before you go hiking, camping, or skiing. Do not leave areas of the skin exposed to the cold. Avoid perspiring or becoming overtired. Be prepared to take emergency shelter. Pack dry clothing, a two-way radio, waterproof matches, and paraffin fire starters with you. Do not use alcohol or other mood-altering substances, and avoid caffeinated beverages. Avoid walking on ice or getting wet. Carefully watch for signs of cold-weather health problems.

Be Cautious About Travel

  • Listen for radio or television reports of travel advisories issued by the National Weather Service.
  • Do not travel in low-visibility conditions.
  • Avoid traveling on ice-covered roads, overpasses, and bridges if at all possible.
  • If you must travel by car, use tire chains and take a mobile phone with you.
  • If you must travel, let someone know your destination and when you expect to arrive. Ask them to notify authorities if you are late.
  • Check and restock the winter emergency supplies in your car before you leave.
  • Never pour water on your windshield to remove ice or snow; shattering may occur.
  • Don’t rely on a car to provide sufficient heat; the car may break down.
  • Always carry additional warm clothing appropriate for the winter conditions.

What to Do if You Get Stranded

Staying in your vehicle when stranded is often the safest choice if winter storms create poor visibility or if roadways are ice covered. These steps will increase your safety when stranded:

  • Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna as a signal to rescuers and raise the hood of the car (if it is not snowing).
  • Move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger area.
  • Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing, blankets, or newspapers.
  • Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems.
  • Run the motor (and heater) for about 10 minutes per hour, opening one window slightly to let in air. Make sure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe—this will reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • As you sit, keep moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and stay warmer.
  • Do not eat un-melted snow because it will lower your body temperature.
  • If possible, huddle with other people for warmth

Following these tips will help you to avoid the dangers of extreme cold weather.

For more helpful safety tips, check out our blog’s Safety Tips section.