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Winter Weather Health Warning From WMC

Dr. Jonathan Berkowitz is the Medical Director of Regional Emergency Services and Disaster Medicine at Westchester Medical Center
Dr. Jonathan Berkowitz is the Medical Director of Regional Emergency Services and Disaster Medicine at Westchester Medical Center Photo Credit: Contributed

Westchester Medical Center offers health and safety tips as forecasters call for potentially dangerous snow and ice conditions over the next 48 hours.

Old man winter is gearing up to deliver another substantial snowfall to our area. Weather forecasters are calling for a snowfall in excess of a foot or more in some areas of the Hudson Valley. While this usually means lots of winter fun and outdoor activities for the kids and winter sports enthusiasts, unfortunately, every year hundreds of people injure their backs, or even worse, suffer heart attacks, from shoveling snow. Typical winter conditions (a little more than an inch of snowfall and temperatures that dip below 20 degrees) cause death rates from heart attacks to triple among men 35 to 49 years old.

“While the temperature is not going to be too extreme, shoveling snow can still be very dangerous for many people, particularly if the right precautions aren't taken,” says Dr. Jonathan Berkowitz, Medical Director, Regional Emergency Services and Disaster Medicine at Westchester Medical Center. “This particular storm will be producing a substantial amount of heavy wet snow which makes shoveling difficult and potentially dangerous.”

During the winter months snow removal may be a necessity, but it must also be considered a physical activity that should be carefully undertaken. Westchester Medical Center (WMC) wants to remind everyone of the potential dangers associated with the snow. There are some tips that can help alleviate this hassle and keep you, your back and your heart safe so that you can enjoy the winter wonderland around you.

  • If you've ever had a heart attack, if you have heart disease or high blood pressure, you probably don't want to do the shoveling yourself. Like starting a new exercise program, at the very least, you should consult your doctor before attempting it.
  • Do not work to the point of exhaustion. If you become short of breath or have difficulty breathing or feel tightness or discomfort in your chest, stop immediately!
  • Get a neighborhood kid to shovel your walk or dig out your car. Volunteer to do it for an elderly or infirmed neighbor or relative if you are physically able.
  • Take it slow! Pace yourself. Shoveling (like lifting weights) can raise your heart rate and blood pressure dramatically. Be sure to stretch out and warm up before taking on the task.
  • Avoid driving if possible, Slick and icy road surfaces can be deadly! Staying off the road allows road crews to properly clean the road surface which makes travel safer for everyone. If you must drive, use caution.

Additionally, anyone who will be spending time outdoors during this storm or, at any other time during the winter, should be aware of the signs and symptoms associated with cold related emergencies. “If you think you may be suffering from the effects of the cold, remove yourself from the element immediately and seek medical attention if necessary,” added Dr. Berkowitz.

Who is most susceptible to cold related emergencies?

Very old- Are at the greatest risk as they may be unaware of their limitations. Due to limited mobility may be forced to spend increased amount of time exposed to the cold weather due to slow ambulation.

Very young- Thermoregulatory system is still immature. Babies rely on adults for warmth.

Infirmed- Due to illness or injury can’t remove themselves from the cold source. Asthma patients who forget to take their medication out with them.

Workforce- Those who work out of doors in the element such as Firefighters, Police Officers, EMT’s, Sanitation workers, road crews.

Stages of Hypothermia

When body temperatures drop below normal (around 98.6), the body reacts by shivering. Shivering is lots of little muscle contractions which creates warmth. “Goose bumps” form, raising body hair on end in an attempt to create a layer of insulation around the body. Usually this returns the body temperature to normal. Shivering is the body’s normal reaction to minor heat loss.

If the loss of body heat continues and body temperatures drop below 95°, shivering will become more violent, muscle coordination becomes clumsy as movement and speech begin to slow, even though the victim may appear alert. Lips, earlobes, fingertips and toes may become blue as blood vessels contract sending more warm blood to vital internal organs. Once this occurs, affected extremities become even colder. (This loss of blood flow is why cold fingers seem to stay cold for longer than expected.)

Left untreated, hypothermia becomes severe and may result in death when body temperature drops below 86°. Victims will experience lethargy, unconsciousness, seizures and even cardiac arrest.

Frostnip and Frostbite

Frostbite is, literally, frozen body tissue – It usually involves just the skin, however, sometimes it goes deeper - and must be handled very carefully in order to prevent permanent tissue damage or loss. Children are at greater risk for frostbite than adults, both because they lose heat from their skin more rapidly than adults and because they may be reluctant to leave their winter fun to go inside and warm up. You can prevent frostbite in cold weather by dressing in layers, staying aware of your surroundings and going indoors at regular intervals as well as watching for frostnip, frostbite's early warning signal. Frostbite is a true emergency and must be treated by a physician in an emergency department.

Frostnip usually affects areas that are exposed to the cold, such as the cheeks, nose, ears, fingers, and toes, leaving them white and numb. Frostnip is self correcting when the area is re-warmed, however left untreated, frostnip can quickly lead to frostbite.