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Tips To Prevent Winter's Chilly Dangers

Decorations, winter wonderlands, cozy fireplaces - even eggnog - can bring good cheer to the holiday season. But they can also bring danger. "All seasons come with unique risks," says Brian Kelly, MD, Associate Chief for Emergency and Ambulatory Services at Sturdy Memorial Hospital. "But winter calls for cognizance of climate, weather, traveling, appliance, and decoration hazards that are often overlooked when people are preparing for and celebrating the holidays."

Here is some information provided by the Emergency Care Center (ECC) staff at Sturdy Memorial Hospital, including tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which can help you remain safe and healthy throughout the winter season and stay out of the emergency room:

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

We all know the characteristics of wild New England weather, especially during frigid winter months: heavy snow, freezing rain, and power outages. "To generate heat or electricity in colder weather or during an outage," says Dr. Kelly, "many people use household appliances that carry the risk of carbon monoxide, or CO, poisoning." Equipment including gas water heaters, kerosene space heaters, propane heaters and stoves, and gasoline and diesel-powered generators can emit carbon monoxide (CO).

"Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and yet toxic gas that interferes with blood's oxygen-carrying capacity," says Dr. Kelly. According to the CDC, in 2007, CO poisoning resulted in over 21,000 emergency department visits in the U.S.

To prevent CO poisoning:

  • Seek prompt medical attention if you symptoms present, which include: dizziness, headache, nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue, confusion, and hallucinations.
  • Install a battery-operated CO detector in your home (it's the law). Check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. If the detector sounds, leave your home immediately and call 911. Click here to visit Massachusetts' requirements for detectors on Mass.gov.
  • Have your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal-burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Don't use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement, or garage, or near a window.
  • Don't run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open.
  • Don't burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn't vented.

Cold Temperatures

Rapid loss of body heat from extremely cold temperatures, usually due to immersion in cold water or prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, can cause the body to lose heat faster than it can produce. Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, can result and affect the person's ability to properly think or move, "and your heart, nervous system and other organs can't function correctly," says Dr. Kelly. "Left untreated, hypothermia can cause heart failure and death."

To prevent hypothermia:

  • Make sure you have adequate food, clothing, blankets, shelter, and sources of heat.
  • Wear layers of clothing and a hat to keep your body insulated.
  • Keep moving; physical activity raises body temperature.
  • Learn the symptoms of hypothermia (shivering, exhaustion, drowsiness, confusion, fumbling, and slurred speech) and seek medical attention right away.

Decorating

Hanging house lights and decking the halls can be dangerous work. According to the CDC, emergency physicians treated approximately 39,700 people for fall-related injuries during the 2010 holiday season, which the organization designated as November 1, 2010 - January 31, 2011. The increased injury risk is due to escalated use of ladders, stools, and other furniture to hang ornaments, lights, and other decorations.

To prevent falls:

  • When putting up holiday decorations, select a ladder for the right height, position the ladder close to the work area, and wear proper footwear.
  • Ask for help when moving heavy or awkward items.
  • Keep pathways clear of decorations, boxes, and other items that can cause someone to trip and fall.

Driving

Preparing for winter driving requires more than turning on the heat in your car and wiping the snow off the windshield with your sleeve. In addition to properly cleaning off your car when it snows and scraping the ice from your window so you can see clearly, and protect other drivers from the risk of flying, frozen debris, here are some things you should do:

  • Avoid traveling when the weather service has issued advisories.
  • Every time you drive or ride in an automobile, make sure to wear a seatbelt.
  • Service the radiator and maintain antifreeze level.
  • Check the tire tread or, if necessary, replace tires with
    all-weather or snow tires.
  • Keep gas tank full to avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines.
  • Keep a winter emergency kit in your car should you become stranded, that includes blankets; food and water; booster cables, flares, tire pump, and a bag of sand or cat litter (for traction); compass and maps; flashlight,
    battery-powered radio, and extra batteries; first-aid kit; and plastic bags (for sanitation).

Impaired driving - when a person is affected by alcohol, drugs, certain medical conditions, drowsiness, exhaustion, or cell phone distractions - is even more dangerous when snow, ice, and slippery roadways are in the mix. Sturdy Memorial Hospital, which recognizes this issue is of increased importance during the holiday season, participates in Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Project Red Ribbon, a national campaign designed to promote safe and sober driving during the holiday season by making red ribbons available to members of the public.

The Hospital's participation in the MADD Project Red Ribbon, according to Dr. Kelly, "is an important part of our overall goal to reduce the incidence of motor vehicle accidents and deaths which unfortunately rise during the holiday season. We hope that members of our community will join us in recognizing this worthwhile program by tying a red ribbon on their vehicle, and even more importantly, avoiding accidents by following the rule - Don't Drink and Drive." Anyone interested in obtaining the MADD red ribbons can pick them up, free of charge, at Sturdy Memorial's Emergency Care Center, which is open 24 hours a day, or at the Information Desk in the Main Lobby.

According to the CDC, every day almost 30 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver. When you make social plans involving alcohol, make arrangements to safeguard against drinking and driving:

  • Designate a non-drinking driver.
  • Take keys away from intoxicated friends.
  • Get a ride home or call a cab when drinking.
  • When hosting a party where alcohol is served, ensure all guests leave with a sober driver.

Power Outages

High winds and downed trees are some of the causes for power outages. In winter, make sure to keep flashlights and batteries on hand, only use generators and similar appliances outdoors, and wear layers of clothing to stay warm.

Here are some other items to consider:

  • Be sure your water is safe during an outage; check with local authorities.
  • If the power is out longer than two hours, throw away refrigerated food that has a temperature higher
    than 40F.
  • Wear layers of clothing, which help to insulate body heat.
  • Avoid power lines, and use electric tools and appliances safely to prevent electrical shock.

Winter Chores and Recreation

Whether walking, shoveling, sledding, ice skating, snowmobiling, skiing, or snowboarding, people should take precautions to minimize or prevent serious injuries during outdoor activities:

  • Wear shoes or boots that have non-slip soles.
  • Ice, sleet, and snow can make driveways and sidewalks slippery and hazardous. Keep them well shoveled, and apply material such as sand or rock salt to improve traction.
  • Don't shovel snow that is too heavy to lift, especially if you have a heart condition or are elderly.
  • Wear a helmet when skiing, sledding, skating, snowboarding, or snowmobiling.
  • Make sure young children do not cross streets alone, and that they wear appropriate shoes and brightly colored, reflective clothing when walking in snowy conditions.

For more information on winter and holiday safety, visit the CDC's website by clicking here.

The Sturdy Memorial Hospital Emergency Care Center is equipped to handle some of the most serious situations life has to offer and treats nearly 50,000 patients annually. Staffed by physicians and nurses who are career emergency professionals and/or have been extensively trained in treating emergencies, the ECC is open 24 hours a day. For more information, click here.