Cold, snow and ice are part of living in Wisconsin in the winter, so it can be challenging to stay healthy at this time of year. Emergency departments often see people suffering from cold weather injuries, some of which are preventable.

1. Slips and Falls

Icy outdoor surfaces make people vulnerable to slips and falls. The resulting injuries can include broken bones, hurt backs or sprained joints. Head injuries are also common. February is the busiest month at the adult Level I Trauma Center at Froedtert Hospital for treating injuries due winter weather-related falls. Each winter, an average of 40 people are admitted to Froedtert & MCW hospitals for serious injuries sustained during a slip or fall caused by snow or ice. People who are admitted following a slip on snow or ice usually spend about four days in the hospital.

Being mindful of how you walk in the winter can decrease your chances of slipping on ice. Take short, slow steps with slightly bent knees — as if you’re waddling like a penguin — and extend your arms to your sides. Leaving your hands in your pockets will make it harder to keep your balance. Use handrails whenever possible, and treat every walkway as though it has black ice. Plan in advance and give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination.

Take precautions to reduce your risk of falls when getting in or out of a car by parking in a well-lit area and ensuring the footing is solid before you step out. Most people tend to get in and out of a car one leg at a time, but using both legs together will give you more support. To get in, lower yourself into the seat first, then swing both legs in at the same time. To get out, swing both legs out and stand up. If you’re expecting the area to be slippery or icy, it can be helpful to carry salt or cat litter in your car so you can sprinkle it outside your door for traction.

Dress Wisely To Prevent Falls

If you know you will have to walk in snow or on ice, your footwear choice matters. Make sure your shoes are comfortable and fit you well. Choose a pair with good treads and some grip; shoes with rubber soles tend to have the best traction. Consider adding cleats to your shoes for additional traction. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found these products reduce the risk of outdoor falls and winter injuries. If you use a cane, adding a non-slip cane tip specifically for snow and ice can help too. Carry a cell phone so you can call for help if you fall and can’t get up.

If you’re going to walk in the dark, wear bright-colored clothing or reflective material and follow all traffic safety rules for pedestrians. It is important to dress for cold temperatures, but make sure your clothing, like your hat or scarf, doesn’t get in the way of your eyes. You want to be able to see the path in front of you to avoid tripping on something unexpected. Also, be aware that a poorly fitting face mask or a face mask that causes your glasses to fog could interfere with your vision.

What To Do if You Fall

Appropriate care after a fall is always important, and this is especially true for older adults. Older people, especially those over 65, can be severely injured as a result of what in younger people might constitute a minor fall, such as slipping while stepping off a curb. Broken hips, head injuries and other serious injuries can significantly impact overall health, well-being and longevity and should not be underestimated. An urgent care clinic may be appropriate if you think you have a sprain or strain. Many minor injuries can be treated by rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE). Call your primary care provider for advice, or try an online virtual clinic.

If you fall and are unable to get up, think you may have a broken bone or are in severe pain, you probably need emergency care. This is especially important if you have or think you may have a head injury, as it may be serious. Seek emergency care if you have a loss of consciousness, a severe headache after the fall, nausea and vomiting, confusion or disorientation after the injury, increased sleepiness, seizures or are on blood-thinning medications.

2. Back and Neck Injuries

Shoveling can cause cold weather injuries to the neck and back, which is why proper form is important. Instead of lifting the snow onto the shovel, push the snow away. Protect your back by keeping a slight bend in your knees. You may also want to warm up your muscles first by stretching.

3. Heart Attacks

Shoveling snow or using a snow blower can be strenuous work, especially for someone whose heart may not be used to that amount or type of exercise. If you have one or more risk factors for heart disease, avoid overexerting yourself in cold weather. That means taking frequent breaks from shoveling or having someone else do it for you, and going inside if you start to overheat.

If you experience shortness of breath, chest pain or any other heart attack symptoms, you should call 911 immediately. If you haven’t seen your primary care doctor in a while, it may be time for a yearly checkup to ensure you are in tip-top shape!

4. Hypothermia

The body does an excellent job of maintaining a constant temperature, but extended exposure to cold can overwhelm its auto-regulation. Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body temperature drops below 95°F. If you must be outside during frigid weather, wear plenty of layers and stay as dry as possible. Elderly individuals and young children are often at more risk, but hypothermia can affect anyone. Alcohol use can also make you more susceptible to hypothermia.

Warnings signs of hypothermia include shivering, loss of dexterity, impaired thinking, high pulse and increased breathing. Shivering is one way the body maintains its temperature. As hypothermia progresses, the body’s shivering mechanism may stop working, people may get more confused and the heart can stop working normally. If you think someone is suffering from hypothermia, call 911, gently bring them out of the cold and remove any wet clothing. If you think someone does not have a pulse, call 911 and start CPR.

5. Frostbite

Frostbite can cause permanent damage to the body as skin, nerves and tissue freeze at the site of injury. Your extremities — hands, feet, ears or tip of your nose — are most vulnerable to these cold weather injuries. Avoid prolonged time outdoors in frigid weather. If you must go outside, wearing gloves, warm socks and hats can help prevent frostbite.

The first signs of frostbite can be numbness, clumsiness and cold skin. The skin can also appear discolored or turn black. Treatment often includes rewarming (as long as there is no risk of re-freezing), wound care, and pain control. If you believe you may be experiencing frostbite, seek emergency care.

6. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is often called “the silent-killer” because it is an odorless, colorless gas found in exhaust fumes of carbon containing fuels (gas, wood, coal, etc). Inhaling the fumes causes the carbon monoxide to build up in your blood stream. Carbon monoxide decreases delivery of oxygen to your body. This can lead to brain and heart problems. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, nausea, dizziness and tiredness.

The risk for carbon monoxide poisoning increases in the winter due to an increased use of fume-producing products like fireplaces, furnaces and kerosene heaters. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, have your home heating system inspected every winter and make sure any fuel-burning devices, like heaters or gasoline generators, are properly ventilated. If you have a fireplace, clean your chimney and flue annually. Do not "warm up" your car in a garage, as this can lead to a build-up of carbon monoxide. Install a carbon monoxide alarm or test your existing alarm.

If you suspect someone may be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, get them outdoors and call 911. Fire departments have devices to test for carbon monoxide and can initiate medical care if you need it.

Your best options for fast, accurate care are closer than you think.


About the Author

Matthew Chinn, MD is a board-certified emergency medicine physician with Froedtert & MCW health network. He sees patients at Froedtert Hospital and at the Moorland Reserve Health Center. He is also the medical director of the Tess Corners Fire Department and City of New Berlin Fire Department.