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How to safely negotiate winter

Jan 28, 2015 02:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
We're lucky here in the Chesapeake region, our winters are milder than a lot of other places. However, every once in a while, Mother Nature likes to remind us of this by walloping us with a bit of bitter cold and a snowfall that's a lot more than measurable. (Most of us remember “Snowmageddon” or the major accumulation of 1996. And a few even recall 1978's monumental amounts.)

Still, we do have a winter, and it can be difficult to deal with—even dangerous. We have to plow our driveways, shovel our walks, and scrape off our cars. And we need to protect our skin while we do all these tasks.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) reminds us that frostbite occurs when the skin—and sometimes the tissue beneath the skin—freezes due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Depending on how long and how frozen the tissue, frostbite can result in severe, sometimes permanent, damage.

“Frostbite usually affects the face, nose, ears, fingers and toes, so on bitterly cold days, it’s not enough to just put on a winter coat,” said board-certified dermatologist Amy J. Derick, MD, FAAD, clinical instructor of dermatology, Northwestern University. “To really protect your skin from dangerously low temperatures, keep an eye on the weather, dress appropriately for outdoor activities and stay dry.”

The right “fashion” include warm, lined, waterproof boots and a scarf over your mouth. Breathing in cold air (and since you will be getting a real workout, those breaths may be deep) is very hard on your lungs and heart. Also critical to the stay-warm, prevent-frostbite equation is a pair of warm gloves. Forget a nice knit, or those classy leather driving gloves. Go waterproof, go lined.

And while we are on the subject of bad weather necessities, the good folks at Synergy HomeCare remind us of the importance of a practice they call “Cold Weather Companion.” They tell us that nearly half of all hypothermia deaths are people over the age of 65. Many of these deaths occur right in their own homes because seniors may not feel the dip in temperature due to dementia or medications that affect awareness. Still other seniors don't properly heat their homes due to high utility costs. Make it your business to check on seniors in your neighborhood to make sure the heat is up, prescriptions are filled, and the pantry is stocked.

The American Red Cross reminds us that the signs of hypothermia include confusion, dizziness, exhaustion, and severe shivering. Frostbite symptoms include numbness, flushed gray, white, blue or yellow skin discoloration, and a waxy feeling to the skin. Seek immediate medical treatment if someone is showing signs of either hypothermia or frostbite.

--Sarah Hagerty
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