Just when we thought we might enjoy yet another moderate Minnesota winter, we were acutely reminded of our usual January-March weather by the low temperatures and snows of the past week. Such an awakening, with its resultant inherent winter perils, prompts me to discuss some health concerns characteristic of these lower temperatures and other aspects of personal health and precautions we encounter in these winter months.
These topics of concern include the low temperatures, wind chill factor, changes in humidity, indoor heating safety, snow shoveling, icy footpaths, automobile travel and personal health challenges.
Preparation for the cold weather requires primarily Common Sense and personal preventive actions. Today's media saturation benefits us by the usually accurate and repeated weather reports and road conditions; we just have to pay attention to this information and heed the advice! Personal protection such as influenza vaccine, Pneumovax and other health issues has been addressed in previous columns. Pragmatic measures we need to use include dressing in layers, wearing warm, comfortable waterproof shoes or boots, and using ear, head, and extremity protection.
The loss of body heat is greatest from the head, so appropriate headwear is required; the footwear described above and the use of gloves or, preferably, mittens (the fingers warm each other) is protective against frostbite. Keeping the body dry with these clothes/boots prevents cold effects; however, keep your hands hydrated indoors and use an emollient (Alpha-Keri oil or DML lotion) and avoid harsh soaps such as Ivory or Zest to prevent the "chapped hands," body dryness and itching of winter.
Our homes, usually heated by forced hot air, become drier with this low humidity.
Since nearly all our inhaled air needs to be humidified by our noses, this air should be moisturized by the use of a mask or nose covering outside in addition to the use of a cool humidifier in our homes. Home humidification is especially valuable for children and those people with chronic lung diseases.
Since home heat comes from fossil fuel combustion, our source of heating should be monitored with a Carbon Monoxide monitor on each floor of the home in addition to the usual smoke alarms.
A local retail store has valuable information about Humidity on its website, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Outdoors, our footpaths require shoveling of snow and removal of ice. Several patients in my medical experience suffered heart attacks or died while shoveling heavy snow; that exercise may be as much work as a stress test or exercise workout! Other patients have experienced increased morbidity and mortality from the all-to-frequent falls on icy paths, porches, and steps. Most of us should use younger members of our society to clear our winter paths, and all of us need to wear foot protection to prevent falls.
Your car is a valuable mode of winter transportation and can be a safe haven in severe weather. A well-functioning car with appropriate levels of antifreeze, oil, wiper fluid, and gasoline (at least 3/4 tank at all times) is necessary in winter conditions. Safe tires, functional wipers, and a winter survival kit (shovel, snow brush, ice scraper, flashlight, candles, matches, water, food, dry clothing and blankets) are often comforting and may be life-saving. Before leaving home for work or a trip, check the forecast and driving conditions (DOT #1-800-542-0220, 511 (Cell), or www.dot.state.mn.us. If you become stranded, don't leave your car! Ventilate your car carefully when using the heater or candles. Observe caution at all times!
Remember these important aspects of Preventive Winter Medicine:
Don't participate in winter activities beyond your abilities;
Wear a hat, scarf, mittens or gloves at all times as needed;
Keep all clothing dry; wear safe and comfortable footwear;
Don't rub snow on a cold area; warm these areas with other body parts (hand, armpits)
Try to push snow from paths rather than lift it: a better choice-hire it done!
Avoid alcohol use during winter activities;
Enjoy our winters but be prepared!