Winter and Its Dangers

When those first few flakes of snow fall at the beginning of winter, one’s mind may start to wander toward thoughts of snowball fights, snowmen, sledding, and beautiful scenes of evergreen tree tops covered in glistening ice. Winter can be both exciting and picturesque. Unfortunately, winter can also be very dangerous. Black ice and heavy snow storms make winter travel risky, and exposure to below freezing temperatures can cause health risks like frostbite and hypothermia. The National Weather Service indicates that in the United States, there were 17 winter storm fatalities in 2011 and 29 fatalities due to extreme cold. One can avoid most of these dangers, however, as long as proper precautions are made.

Winter storms cover a range of hazardous weather conditions. The most commonly thought of storms are snowstorms with strong winds, usually referred to as blizzards, and heavy snowstorms in which so much snow falls that daily tasks grind to a halt. Ice storms are just as dangerous, since large amounts of ice can destroy power lines and leave behind slick black ice on roadways. In fact, 70 percent of the casualties related to ice and snow happen in automobiles.

The best way to deal with bad winter weather is to avoid it, only going outdoors when necessary. When one does need to go outdoors, a few simple winter weather precautions can make a big difference. Everyone should prepare a winter weather kit for both home and road use. A home kit should include rock salt to melt ice, sand to improve traction, snow shovels, heating fuel in case power is lost inside the home, and a supply of warm clothes and blankets. A car kit should include a shovel, windshield ice scraper, flashlight, battery powered radio with extra batteries, water, a small supply of food, matches, road salt, sand, tow chain, blankets, first aid kit, pocket knife, booster cables, and emergency flares. Additionally, making sure that one’s car is in good working condition and is equipped with winter tires can help prevent car accidents.

If someone’s car does spin out of control, leaving them stranded somewhere during a storm, the most important things to do are to stay awake and warm. Individuals stranded in a snowstorm should huddle together and wrap themselves up in blankets and extra layers. Running the motor for an extended period can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, so the motor and heater should only be run for 10 minutes every hour. Tying a bright cloth to the antenna is also a good way to get the car noticed by potential rescuers.

Health dangers, like frostbite and hypothermia, are another winter threat. The elderly are particularly at risk for cold exposure fatality, and 50 percent of the people who die related to the cold are over the age of 60. When bare skin is exposed to freezing temperatures for extended periods, the skin tissue gets damaged, causing a loss of color and feeling. If left alone, this can develop into frostbite. Someone with white or grayish-yellow skin or skin that feels particularly waxy to the touch may be exhibiting the early signs of frostbite. The best way to treat frostbite until one can seek professional medical attention is to get into a warm room as soon as possible. The damaged skin should be warmed with warm water or body heat. Rubbing the area can increase the damage, however, as can applying strong sources of heat like heating pads.

Similarly, hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops due to extended exposure to the cold. The condition can cause confusion, exhaustion, memory loss, clumsiness, and slurred speech. If left untreated, it can even result in death. Anyone with a temperature below 95° Fahrenheit needs emergency medical treatment. If professional treatment is unavailable, the hypothermic individual should be immediately moved to a warm room. Wet clothing must be removed and the body should be warmed. Start by warming the center of the body using electric blankets or skin-to-skin contact. Non-alcoholic warm beverages can also help increase the body temperature if the victim is still well enough to drink.

Winter health dangers include more than hypothermia and frostbite, though. Some dangers are not as obvious as others. For instance, the danger of heart attack, stroke, and increased blood pressure, especially in the elderly, rises in the winter. The physical exertion of shoveling snow combined with the constriction of the blood vessels in response to cold weather make circulatory problems more common. A lack of vitamin D from decreased exposure to the sun can cause problems, as well, and cold winter winds tend to increase the risk of asthma and pneumonia. Dressing warm, finding ways to exert less energy, and closely monitoring one’s health is the best way to combat these risks.

Winter is a beautiful season, but it comes with numerous dangers. The best remedy for these dangers is to take the right precautions to avoid them. When winter disasters do strike, staying calm and knowing what to do is the next best course of action. Getting lost in the beauty of winter is fine as long as one is also able to stay warm and pay attention.

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