Sarah Beth Dinwiddie, trauma outreach coordinator at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, has worked in emergency medicine for nearly a decade. She has seen the seasonal ebb and flow of patients and knows that with winter comes an onslaught of cold-weather injuries.
“When the temperatures drop, there is always a trend in the types of patients frequenting the ER,” said Dinwiddie. “Patients seek medical attention for things like slipping on ice and overexposure to the elements. In truth, I try to educate as many people as possible about winter health hazards because many of these injuries could be avoided.”
Older adults tend to be the most likely to suffer broken hips from slipping on ice, she explained. These slips contribute to the most frequent injury treated by Carilion’s trauma team: Accidental falls.
Dinwiddie offered several easy ways that individuals can proactively prepare for inclement weather and a drop in temperatures.
Have the Clothing Essentials
It sounds simple enough, but one of the most common mistakes people make is underestimating the damage colder temperatures can do. Many may anticipate the risk of hypothermia when there is snow on the ground, but hypothermia is a risk even at 50 degrees. Hats, gloves, scarves, socks and sturdy snow shoes help to protect the most vulnerable parts of the body (toes, hands, ears, etc.).
Dressing in layers will also help you to stay warm, but adjust as necessary. If you are shoveling snow, for instance, your body temperature will rise. Removing layers will help you regulate your temperature. It is also important to consider what fabrics you dress in.
“You want to consider synthetic layers,” said Dinwiddie. “Clothing that will wick any moisture away from your body. That will keep you warmer by holding in your body heat and removing chilly moisture. Cotton does just the opposite; it steals the heat from you and keeps the cold up against you.”
Plan ahead by making sure you have the appropriate food and drink items, clothing, blankets, etc.. This allows you to hunker down comfortably if the roads become too messy for travel. The majority of winter injuries occur when people go outside or try to maintain their usual routine.
“We see a lot of people slipping on the ice, and increases in hip fractures from people slipping on the ice just in their driveway,” explained Dinwiddie. “It’s best to be able to shelter in place and cut out activities that aren’t essential.”
This is true if you are out as well, if the car you are in slides off the road. If possible, pack a winter preparation kit and keep it in your trunk. If your car becomes disabled, call for help and use the car as shelter from the elements. Have appropriate shoes packed in your kit as well, in case you need to walk somewhere for help. To build your own kit, check out this helpful list on Ready.gov.
Watch Out for Friends and Loved Ones
Watch out for your neighbors, especially elderly ones who have not been working for a while. It is always a good idea to check on them, make sure that they are staying warm and see if they need help with anything. And when it snows, help them shovel the driveway so they avoid overexerting themselves.
“Elderly people are more prone to cold-related injuries,” said Dinwiddie. “They don’t always have the finances to heat their house as warm as others. If they take a fall and can’t get to a phone to call for help, their homes can cool down pretty quickly. We see quite a few hypothermic patients from those types of situations.”
If you are concerned about someone, it never hurts to check in.
After discussing these tips, Dinwiddie described the signs and symptoms of hypothermia, highlighting when someone needs to seek additional medical attention.
“One of the very first signs of hypothermia is what we call the ‘umbles,’” said Dinwidde. “That happens when people start mumbling, stumbling and fumbling.”
In other words, if you have difficulty with your fine motor skills, getting a thought out coherently or walking properly—or if you notice these things in someone else—quickly get yourself or them warm through passive warming (as opposed to sticking a person under a stream of hot water, which may cause more damage). Eat warm food and beverages and consider staying indoors for the rest of the day.
Overall, preparing yourself for cold weather is something that can and should be done proactively. When the cold hits, be sure you are ready to help both yourself and the neighbors, friends and family who may be more at risk for cold-weather injuries.