By: Katie Leach, MS, ATC/LAT
Winter can be an extremely challenging time of year. Although this season has its upsides including the exciting holidays, snow sports, warm clothes, and warm hot chocolate, it can also be very dangerous. For most of us, these months are cold, bleak and riddled with bouts of rain, ice, or snow. Not only do these environmental factors pose some serious risks for injuries, but winter can challenge an individual’s immune system and general health.
Preparing for these risk factors is necessary to avoid the woes of winter. Here you will find some helpful tips to reduce your risk of developing an injury or succumbing to illness.
- Cold & Flu
Cold and flu season runs from approximately November through April. Winter forces more people indoors which can rapidly increase the chance of exposure to outside contaminants both at the workplace and at home. Individuals who have been exposed to these contaminants can be contagious prior to showing symptoms of these conditions. It is imperative for all of us to take swift actions once symptoms are detected.1
Flu symptoms can be very intense and include, but are not limited to: fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue
General cold symptoms are typically less intense and may include general fatigue and a runny or stuffy nose.2
Prevention strategies for these conditions include: the flu vaccination, frequently and effective washing of the hands (minimum of 20 seconds with soap and water), sanitizing any shared office supplies regularly, avoiding or keeping your distance from ill individuals, staying properly hydrated, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising consistently, refraining from smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, as well as getting outside to enjoy the fresh air as much as possible.
If you do get start to experience any of the symptoms above, slow yourself down and provide your body with the correct environment to recover back to full strength. This includes staying home, drinking plenty of water, avoiding stress and strenuous activities as much as possible, and getting sufficient rest.3 Taking the time to rest early after the onset of symptoms will decrease the length of time that you experience the cold or flu. Take the correct precautions to reduce the risk of illness, but you do become ill, quickly reduce activity to allow yourself the opportunity to recover and get back up on your feet as quickly as possible.
- Cold Injuries & How to Deal
There are three forms of cold injuries that are important to understand and differentiate. The most least severe is frost nip, followed by the more devastating frostbite and concluded with the medical emergency of hypothermia.
Frostnip is the least severe of all cold related injuries, but still needs to be taken seriously. This occurs in response to exposure to cold weather and typically affects the face, ears, toes, and fingers. Symptoms include: pale appearance, burning, itching, pain, tingling and numbness. Warming the tissues should resolve these symptoms as there is no permanent damage. Preventative measures include covering up with gloves, scarves as well as wearing thick wool socks when outside in the elements.4
Frostbite is the more severe version of frostnip that occurs in response to prolonged exposure to cold weather. In this injury, the tissue is no longer simply cold, pale and feeling burning or tingling, but the skin and underlying tissue are freezing. Frostbite requires rapid rewarming of the tissue and medical attention because prolonged exposure can lead to permanent skin damage. Symptoms include: frostnip symptoms, blisters, firm feeling skin, loss of sensation, and changes in skin color and sensation, first red and cold, followed by numbness and hard, pale, yellow, blue, or gray skin. Preventative measures are similar to frostnip which include wearing the proper attire for the weather, but also include limiting the amount of time spent out in the elements. 4
Hypothermia is the final and most severe cold weather injury. This develops when the core body temperature falls drops from about 98.6 degrees to below 95 degrees. This occurs when an individual’s body loses heat faster than they can create it. This is an especially dangerous condition because hypothermia affects the brain and individuals may not be able to recognize the warning signs. The warning signs include confusion, memory loss, drowsiness, exhaustion, and slurred speech. Suspected individuals with this condition should be treated immediately. Take caution and prepare properly for the weather, always have another person with you to help recognize the signs and symptoms and take caution and attempt to avoid extended exposure to cold weather especially in windy and wet conditions. When dressing for the cold weather make sure to layer as much as possible as well as utilize external sources of heat to stay warm.5
- Slip/Trip/Fall Prevention
In most areas, winter usually brings with it snow, ice, and rain which makes many surfaces treacherous to navigate and increases the risk for falls. Injuries from slips and trips may include fractures, sprains, strains, head injuries and more. These may not only result in immediate pain, but long recoveries and large medical bills.
Take these precautions when walking on uneven and slippery services to reduce risk of injury:
Avoid walking on snowy, icy, or slippery surfaces, when possible
Wear proper footwear that are insulated, have rubber soles and have grip tread
Consider buying traction cleats to place over you shoes if consistently walking in snowy, icy or slippery conditions
Take short steps and walk slowly
Always utilize three points of contact like a railing or another stable structure
Avoid carrying loads
Test for slick areas by tapping your foot on them before stepping onto it
Shovel sidewalks, walkways, and driveways (use deicer, sand, or rock salt on these areas to further reduce risks)
- Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
To stay warm during the winter, we burn fuel to operate our furnaces, fireplaces and other external heating agents. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct emitted by the burning these fuels. It is completely colorless and odorless in nature which makes dangerous virtually impossible to detect without assistance. Sources of this deadly poison include: vehicles, small engines, stoves, fireplaces, gas ranges, and furnaces. During the winter months, November through March, these sources are used most often and increase the risk of carbon monoxide exposure. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include: dizziness, headache, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, confusion, fainting, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and more. Although these seem like common complaints, if you suspect you may have been exposed to carbon monoxide, medical attention should be sought out immediately. The best way to combat exposure to this deadly gas is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The most effective way to limit carbon monoxide exposure is to regularly maintain your appliances as well as installing and properly maintaining carbon monoxide detectors. Other ways to reduce exposure include: never using a generator inside of your home or near any window, running your car inside the garage (even with the door open), running your car with the exhaust pipe covered in ice/snow, or heating primarily heating your house with a gas stove.7
Check back next week for some more great information from part 2!
Industrial Sports Medicine Professional
Katie is an Industrial Sports Medicine Provider with InSite Health. She is a Board-Certified Athletic trainer with a bachelor’s degree in Athletic Training from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale and a master’s degree in Kinesiology and Health from the University of Wyoming. She has 5 years of athletic training experience in the university, clinical, and industrial settings.