Avoiding Winter Health Hazards
Winter is right around the corner, bringing freezing temps, snow, ice and a handful of seasonal health risks.
Dr. Brad Younggren, an emergency medicine physician at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, has advice on how to steer clear of common health hazards through the winter months.
As an emergency doctor what are some of the most common injuries you see during the winter?
Dr. Younggren: Injuries resulting from slips and falls increase significantly with the first signs of ice or snow.
Know that slippery surfaces, especially abundant in our wet climate, are inevitable during winter, and take precautions to avoid falls such as using sand, rock salt or non-clumping kitty litter on steps and driveways, and wearing appropriate shoes with good traction.
I also like to remind people to carry their cell phone with them when going outside so that can call someone for help if they do fall.
What about heart attacks – is it true they occur more often in cold weather?
Dr. Younggren: Many studies have documented climbing heart attack rates during the winter with one large study finding that 53 percent more cases were reported in winter than in summer.
The primary culprit, many believe, is temperature.
Cold weather narrows arteries and raises blood pressure, stressing the heart.
However there are a number of reasons that may contribute to this increase:
- Physical strain and overexertion caused by shoveling snow are also commonly cited.
- Other factors that could play a role include the flu and other respiratory infections, seasonal affective disorder, and less healthy eating and exercise habits around the winter holidays.
How can things we use around the house this time of year pose dangers to our health?
Dr. Younggren: Carbon monoxide poisoning can become a real problem as people turn up their heat, rely on backup generators or even use remote start ignitions to warm up their cars.
For example, just a few weeks ago there was a story in the news about a local family who accidentally left their car running in the garage and went to bed without realizing it. The family of six was hospitalized the following morning for CO poisoning.
Since CO is colorless, odorless and tasteless, ensure there is at least one working carbon monoxide detector in the house.
Generators should always run outside the home, at least 20 feet from any windows or doors.
There are a few other signs of CO poisoning to look out for including dizziness, shortness of breath, mild nausea and a dull headache.
There are a few immediate measures you can take if you suspect CO poisoning:
- Get the victim into fresh air immediately.
- If you cannot get the people out of the house, open all windows and doors immediately.
- Any combustion appliances should be turned off.
- Take those who were subjected to carbon monoxide to a hospital emergency room as quickly as possible. A simple blood test will be able to determine if carbon monoxide poisoning has occurred.
Is there anything else people can do to be prepared for winter woes?
Dr. Younggren: Winter storms that down power lines can cause the electricity to go out for long periods of time.
Make sure you are well-stocked on supplies, including at least three days of non-perishable, easy-to-prepare food and water, and consider alternative heat sources well in advance.
I also encourage people to add a few pieces of winter-specific gear to the typical emergency kit we store in cars too such as an extra jacket, gloves and tire chains.