Brrrring it on!
It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also the coldest time of the year. And as the weather remains bitterly frigid as we close in on the official start of winter, the injuries that bring patients to the emergency department reflect the change in season.
From frostbite to injuries stemming from decorating for the holidays, there are a number of hazards to navigate this winter. That’s especially true for many of you who will be spending time outdoors working hard to assist our patients and colleagues.
Fortunately, Brad Uren, M.D., assistant professor of emergency medicine, is here to provide some easy tips to help you safely handle this bitterly cold weather — and the holiday season.
Cold weather and frostbite. As the “polar vortex” makes its return this year, we can expect especially frigid temperatures. When the weather turns cold, slips and falls, car accidents and even frostbite or hypothermia become more common. To guard against frostbite, cover all skin that could be susceptible to the cold. In extremely cold weather, with a bit of wind chill added, it can take just minutes (the time it takes to walk from your car to work) to suffer frostbite.
Check the weather, plan ahead and dress in layers to help keep you warm.
Slips and falls. People in a hurry on ice and snow can end up in the emergency department due to severe injuries from slips and falls.
Plan a few extra minutes in your commute so you are not rushing over slick surfaces. Wear footwear that is not only insulated, but can provide traction. Clear your walks and drives for your fellow neighbors and pedestrians by using salt or other ice melting products.
Falls from ladders. Almost every emergency physician has seen patients that have fallen from a ladder, roof or other structure while decorating for the holidays. In fact, falls account for about 40 percent of the holiday-related injuries recorded by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission — or CPSC.
Those who imitate Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and set up dazzling light displays may be at the greatest risk. The combination of cold temperatures, wind and icy conditions can make hanging lights, especially at significant heights, dangerous. Some people have caused additional injuries to their hands by grabbing for gutters, trees and other objects.
Have a spotter when using a ladder and be sure to place it on a steady ground surface, avoiding icy spots. Enlist the help of others when needed, and though it would cost a bit more, consider hiring a contractor to place lights professionally. For more help, see the CPSC website on ladder safety.
Removing snow. When shoveling, take it easy. If you have any concerns about your health, check with your doctor to ensure your heart is healthy enough for the exercise that comes with snow shoveling. Avoid shoveling after large meals, which can increase the work load on your heart. Take breaks as needed and don’t move too much at once, especially when snow is wet and heavy.
If you use a snow blower, be sure you read the manual and familiarize yourself with the product before you use it. More than 5,700 injuries due to snow blowers are reported by the CPSC every year. Make sure all of the safety devices are working as they should and NEVER attempt to clear a stuck snow blower with your hand. Many manufacturers include a device to clear jams. Be sure the machine is off, and stand in a place where you will not be injured if left-over tension in the machine causes the auger to move suddenly when the jam is finally cleared.
Take your time. When driving in significant snow, plan extra time to arrive at your destination.
Four-wheel drive vehicles only help you gain traction; they do not help you stop in the event of slippery roads. Slowing down and always being sure to drive at a speed where you can see and react safely to the road in front of you will help get you to your destination safely.
Have an emergency kit. Store a small first aid kit, emergency blanket and flashlight in your vehicle. Have a set of good winter boots, a hat and gloves in the vehicle if you must drive in severe winter weather. It is usually a good idea to pack water and food in the event you are traveling in a remote area or may be stuck for several hours. And always make sure your cell phone is charged.
Don’t drink and drive. Alcohol and the holidays often go hand in hand. Drunk driving arrests tend to increase around traditional holiday party times, such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. A trip to the ER always becomes more likely when alcohol is combined with another dangerous activity, such as driving (or even decorating on a ladder!). Enjoy alcohol in moderation and always designate a driver.
Most importantly, enjoy this winter and the holiday season. Just remember that a few minutes of planning can prevent you from having to spend many hours as a patient in the emergency department.