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Staying safe in winter’s chill

It’s warm now but winter weather could arrive at a moment’s notice, so it’s important to be prepared
woman rubs mittened hands together in cold air

Winter is upon us, and with it comes an increased risk of injuries and cold-related conditions. Even though temperatures are currently warm in much of the southern United States, a cold snap could hit any time so it’s important to prepare now.

Martin Mufich, PhD, RN, FAWM, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M University School of Nursing, gives the following advice for staying safe and healthy during colder weather.

Dress for the elements

When temperatures drop, it’s important to dress in layers to help trap heat close to your body. Make sure you have a good winter coat, a hat, gloves and a scarf to cover your head, hands and face. If you’ll be out in the elements—like on a skiing, hiking or hunting trip—Mufich recommends wearing moisture-wicking fabrics.

“Wet clothing can make you colder, so it’s important to stay as dry as possible,” he said. “They make good fabrics now that are effective at wicking the moisture from your body, so you may want to spend the extra money to get quality cold-weather clothing made from these materials.” Try to avoid cotton, as it absorbs moisture and takes a long time to dry.

Stay hydrated

When the temperature drops, it’s easy to become dehydrated without realizing it because we don’t feel as thirsty as we do in warmer weather. However, hydration is just as important in cold weather as it is in hot weather, if not more so, as the body needs to work harder to maintain its core temperature. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, headaches and even hypothermia.

“It’s important to not only hydrate, but to hydrate with electrolytes,” Mufich said. “If you start to overhydrate with only water, you can get hyponatremia—low sodium in the blood—that can lead to numerous issues, including confusion, nausea, headache and fatigue.”

Be aware of cold-related conditions

Cold weather can increase your risk of certain conditions, such as hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below normal, which can happen when exposed to the cold for an extended period. Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, confusion and drowsiness. Frostbite happens when the skin and underlying tissues freeze due to being exposed to extremely cold temperature. Symptoms of frostbite include numbness, tingling and discoloration of the affected area. If you, or someone you’re with, experiences any of these symptoms, take action to get out of the elements (if possible), rewarm the affected area, and seek medical attention if symptoms do not resolve.

While frostbite occurs in below-freezing conditions and the risk increases as the temperature drops, hypothermia can happen even in above-freezing weather. “Your body gets used to a certain climate, and so anything out of the ordinary can cause you to have symptoms,” Mufich said. “So, if you’re water skiing in Texas and it drops down to 60, 65 degrees, and the wind is blowing, you might suffer some type of hypothermic symptoms, even though it’s not really that cold, because you’re not used to it.”

Be prepared for emergencies

It’s always a good idea to have an emergency kit on hand, in case of power outages or other winter weather-related emergencies. Include items such as a flashlight, extra batteries, a first aid kit, and a supply of non-perishable food and water.

If you’re going on a skiing, hiking or hunting trip, Mufich, who’s a Fellow in the Academy of Wilderness Medicine, suggests preparing to stay overnight—even if you’re not planning to.

“If you think you’re going to be out for two hours, plan on being out overnight,” he said. “You don’t want to have a huge backpack, but you want to have a little bit of extra stuff with you, like a blanket, extra snacks, water, electrolytes, etc.” Before you go, Mufich recommends telling somebody where you’ll be and how long you expect to be gone.

Snow-related activities like skiing, snowmobiling and sledding come with inherent risks. If you witness an accident, Mufich says to take note of the time and immediately ask someone to notify a ski patrol, if at a resort, or seek medical help while you stay with the injured person.

“You can make an ‘X’ shape with ski poles in the snow just uphill from the person, which signals to other skiers that a person is down at that spot,” he said. “As people come around, find out if anyone has medical training and can help. Don’t try to fix anything until a person with adequate medical training is there.”

Even though it may be warm right now, winter weather can arrive unexpectedly, so it’s important to be prepared. By following these simple guidelines, you can reduce your risk of injury and enjoy the winter season safely.

Media contact: Dee Dee Grays, grays@tamu.edu, 979.436.0611

Lindsey Hendrix

Program Assistant

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