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Severe winter weather brings added safety warnings
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Leigh-Anne Dennison
February 15, 2007

Snow, freezing rain and low temperatures are just some of the winter weather conditions creating problems this week in areas from the Heartland through the Midwest into New England and along the East Coast. Severe weather that has included sleet and hail in some areas is resulting in power outages, commuting delays and traffic accidents, school and business closings and flight delays or cancellations.

In many cities across the United States, the public is being encouraged to avoid unnecessary travel while severe weather conditions persist or escalate. While many schools and businesses closed enabling people to heed the warnings and stay home, some people must still venture out. The American Red Cross urges people who need to brave the elements to use extreme caution and offers information and tips for coping with the chilly conditions.

“Several factors contribute to how well your body maintains its normal temperature – air temperature, wind, clothing, intensity of activity and the body’s ability to adapt to compensate for the cold environment,” explains Don Lauritzen, a preparedness, health and safety expert with the Red Cross, offering good news as well. “Generally, illnesses caused by over-exposure to extreme temperatures are preventable,” says Lauritzen.

Winter weather emergencies can include hypothermia and frostbite. Red Cross safety experts warn that the air temperature does not have to be below freezing for someone to experience cold emergencies. Wind speed can create dangerously cold conditions even when the temperature is not that low.

Preventing cold weather illnesses

If you must go out in inclement weather, the Red Cross offers the following guidelines to help prevent weather-related illnesses and emergencies:

  • Dress appropriately for the environment and your activity level.
    • Dress in layers so you can adjust to changing conditions, and avoid overdressing.
    • Put on a hat, preferably one that covers your ears, since most body heat is lost through your head.
    • Choose mittens over gloves, if possible, as they provide more warmth to your hands.
    • Wear waterproof, insulated boots to help avoid hypothermia or frostbite by keeping your feet warm and dry and to maintain your footing in ice and snow.
    • Remove wet clothes immediately and warm the core body temperature using a blanket and/or by drinking warm fluids like hot cider or soup.
  • Avoid being outdoors during the coldest part of the day.
  • Reduce the intensity of outside activities and take frequent breaks.
  • During breaks, drink warm fluids to help your body stay hydrated and maintain a normal temperature. Avoid beverages containing caffeine or alcohol as they hinder the body’s temperature-regulating mechanism. Dehydration is dangerous and, unfortunately, is less noticeable in cooler temperatures.

Recognizing and responding to symptoms

“Those at greatest risk for problems with cold exposure include young children and older people, those with health problems – especially those with medical conditions that impair circulation such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease – and those without adequate clothing, shelter or heating resources,” says Lauritzen.

Recognizing the symptoms of weather-related illnesses when they do occur is important so that they can be addressed quickly. Related illnesses and symptoms can include:

  • Hypothermia – A serious medical condition with symptoms that include confusion, dizziness, exhaustion and severe shivering.
  • Frostbite – Warning signs include gray, white or yellow skin discoloration, numbness, waxy feeling skin.

If you begin to experience these symptoms:

  • Get in out of the cold,
  • Remove cold, wet clothing,
  • Use warm blankets to begin restoring the body’s temperature to normal,
  • Replenish fluids and
  • Seek medical attention.

If a weather-related health emergency occurs, call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number to get help immediately; these types of medical emergencies are serious and can be fatal if left untreated.

In addition to these temperature-related illnesses, the combination of cold air and exertion from activities such as shoveling snow can result in respiratory or cardiac incidents, especially for those with pre-existing medical conditions such as high blood pressure and asthma. Again, frequent breaks and listening to your body – paying attention to how you are feeling – are important for keeping yourself healthy and safe.

To learn more about preparing for and coping with winter storms, visit “Prepare for All Disasters Types” under the “Get Prepared” section of RedCross.org. For additional health and safety information, visit the “Facts and Tips” page of the “Health and Safety Services” section on RedCross.org.

The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.

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