Sarah Beth Dinwiddie, trauma nurse specialist at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, has worked in emergency medicine for more than 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, 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 accidental falls, the most frequent injury treated by Carilion’s trauma team.
Dinwiddie offered several easy ways that individuals can proactively prepare for inclement weather and a drop in temperatures.
Have the Clothing Essentials
A common mistake 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.
To protect the most vulnerable parts of the body (toes, hands, ears, etc.), dress in layers and wear hats, gloves, scarves, socks and sturdy snow shoes.
Dressing in layers allows you to adjust as you warm up while shoveling snow, for example. Removing layers will help you regulate your temperature.
Your choice of fabric is important too.
“Consider synthetic layers, which will wick any moisture away from your body,” said Dinwiddie. “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 when you leave home by packing appropriate food and drink items, clothing, blankets, etc. This allows you to hunker down comfortably if the roads become too messy for travel.
If possible, keep a winter preparation kit in your trunk. If your car becomes disabled, call for help and use the car as shelter from the elements. Include appropriate shoes 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.
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.”
An early sign of hypothermia is "the ‘umbles": mumbling, stumbling and fumbling.
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.
Know the Signs of Hypothermia
“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: eating warm food and beverages and staying indoors for the rest of the day. Do not put a person with hypothermia under a stream of hot water; that can cause more damage.
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.