Winter Safety & First Aid
The cold winter season doesn't mean you have to stay inside and give up being outdoors. The winter season brings with it a plethora of fun outdoor activities. Snowmobiling, skiing, skating, snowshoeing, and of course, let us not forget ice hockey. Whatever your outdoor activity of choice, the winter is a wonderful time of year to be outside. The key to having a pleasurable outdoor experience in the winter, as with any time of the year, is to be prepared. While winter is a magical season, it does bring with it a new set of hazards we need to be mindful of. For ease of access, this hub is broken into two main categories: 1. First Aid for Winter Ailments 2. Winter Safety Tips. We'll jump right into it first with first aid for the two most common winter related ailments: frostbite & hypothermia.
What is Frostbite?
Frostbite happens when your skin and the tissues underneath the skin freeze from prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Frostbite has three different levels of severity, each with symptoms more severe than the one before it. Typically it is the feet, ears, nose or fingers that will get frost bitten. However, it can happen to any area of skin that is not properly shielded from the cold.
Risks of Frostbite
If frostbite is not treated in it's early stages it can leave you with increased sensitivity to cold weather, permanent numbness in the affected areas, infection and death of the tissues in the affected area (gangrene) which may lead to amputation.
Signs & Symptoms
- Hard or waxy looking skin.
- Red, white, pale or grayish-yellow skin.
- Numbness in the affected area.
- Muscle stiffness
- Stinging, tingling, pins & needles sensation in the affected area.
- In severe cases, painful red blisters that will turn to black scabs.
First Aid for Frostbite
Your first step in treating frostbite should be to remove yourself from the cold and get indoors as soon as you are able to do so. Since frostbite occurs in stages, getting your skin warm when you first suspect you may be experiencing the signs of frostbite is key to preventing it from progressing. If your mittens or gloves have become wet, remove them and tuck your hands into your jacket, and place your hands in your armpits to warm them. Once indoors, take the following steps to treat the affected areas:
- Remove any cold or wet clothing and dress in warm, dry layers and wrap yourself in blankets.
- The key to preventing further damage is to gradually warm the skin. To do so, place your hands or feet in a bath of warm water. Do not use hot water. If the skin is numb, you will risk burning, which can lead to further damage of the skin tissues. Ideally, the water should be between 40-42 degrees Celsius. (104-107 F)
- If it is your feet or toes that have been affected, after warming them in water, wrap them in a blanket or wool socks (if blisters aren't present) and elevate your feet. Avoid walking on them as much as possible.
When your skin begins to thaw, look for the following:
- If after your skin begins to warm you experience redness and/or a tingling sensation, it means that circulation is returning to the area. Continue with the warming treatments above until warmth has returned to the area. If you experience any pain as the skin warms, take an over the counter pain reliever, like ibuprofen.
- If the numbness doesn't subside, if the pain becomes worse, swelling develops, or if your skin begins to blister, seek medical attention, as the second stage of frostbite has occurred.
Stages of Frostbite
Also known as frostnip
Also known as superficial frostbite.
Also known as deep frostbite.
Skin becomes cold, numb & white
Affected area feels hard and frozen.
Skin becomes white, blue or blotchy.
May feel pins & needles/tingling sensation
When skin thaws, skin turns red and blisters.
When skin thaws, blood filled blisters form and turn into black scabs.
Extremities most vulnerable (fingers, ears, nose & toes)
Affects only the top layer of skin.
Requires urgent medical attention. At this stage, tissue has died. Muscles, nerves and bone beneath may be affected.
Dehydration happens in the winter too!
Dehydration: This occurs when you haven't taken in enough fluids for your body to maintain regular function. Despite the cold temperatures outside during the winter, when you engage in outdoor activities like skiing/snowboarding, your body will still sweat and you need to replenish these fluids. Symptoms include loss of coordination, cramping and impaired thinking. Always drink plenty of fluids. Avoid drinking alcohol when you'll be outdoors for an extended period of time. Alcohol thins your blood, which can make you more susceptible to hypothermia. Take a break from snowboarding to enjoy a nice warm cup of hot chocolate to keep yourself hydrated and your body temperature warm.
What is hypothermia?
Hypothermia is abnormally low body temperature, typically induced by prolonged exposure to cold weather or submersion in cold water. It occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Hypothermia occurs when your core body temperature dips below 35 C (95 F)
Risks of Hypothermia
When your internal body temperature drops, it leaves your internal organs unable to work correctly. If left untreated, it can eventually lead to heart failure, respiratory failure and in extreme cases, death.
Signs & Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of hypothermia usually develop slowly, typically beginning with confusion or the inability to make sharp mental judgments. It can leave you unaware that you are at risk and in need of medical attention. This is why it is important to always travel with at least one partner when heading out onto snowshoeing or skiing trails. Infants, the elderly and people with slim builds are at the greatest risk of experiencing hypothermia.
First Aid for Hypothermia
If you suspect someone is showing the early symptoms of hypothermia, take the following steps:
- Seek warm shelter as soon as possible.
- Remove any wet clothing and get them into dry warm clothes.
- Wrap them in blankets, making sure to cover their neck and head.
- Don't focus on rubbing their legs or arms. If they have frostbite you will only cause pain and potential scarring. Instead you want to focus on warming their core. Place hot water bottles under their arms or in the groin area. You can also place warm compresses on the back of their neck, but be sure not to place anything directly on their skin as you may burn them.
- If they are alert and breathing on their own, give them sips of warm liquids...
If their breathing becomes shallow, they become more confused or they have a hard time speaking clearly, call 911 immediately.
What exactly is wind chill anyway?
Risk of frostbite
0 to -9C
-10 to -27C
-28 to -39C
Skin can freeze in 10-30 mins.
Winter Driving Safety
Winter Driving Tips
Keep informed: Check weather conditions before leaving home, give yourself enough to time reach your destination based on weather conditions, eliminating the need to rush.If possible, consider staying home if the road conditions are particularly bad.
Slow down! Road conditions can change quite quickly in the winter. Always obey the speed limit or slower if visibility is low. Cars in front of you may skid out, slip or swerve and need to break suddenly. Maintain a safe speed and always keep a safe distance from the car in front of you.
Stay Alert! Eliminate unnecessary distractions while driving. Keep your radio turned to a low volume, or off entirely. You want to be able to focus on the road in front of you. Always watch for flashing lights of maintenance vehicles, like snow plows, as well as emergency vehicles. Never attempt to pass a snowplow. Slow down and move over as much as safely possible for emergency vehicles to pass.
Prepare for winter driving
- Maintain your vehicle
Bring your car in for a tune up before winter hits. Keeping your car running in tip top shape will help keep you safe on the roads in the winter. Check to make sure your breaks, battery, lights, heater/defroster and wipers are all in working order.
- Keep plenty of fuel in your car, at least half a tank. It takes longer to get where you're going on icy roads. You don't want to be stuck on the highway in the winter with an empty fuel tank. The side of the highway in the middle of the winter is never a safe place to find yourself.
- Make sure you keep enough windshield washer fluid in your car and that it is rated for cold temperatures. Keep an extra jug of it in the trunk in case you run low and need to top up.
- Clear the snow and ice from your entire vehicle before pulling out of the driveway. Including the hood, and roof. In Canada you always see that one guy on the way to work who still has a foot of snow on his roof. As soon as you need to stop, all that snow is going to come sliding down your windshield, immediately impairing your visibility. Ensure that your tail lights and head lights have been cleared of snow as well. Make sure your license plate is also still visible.
- Make sure all of your windows are fully defrosted before leaving home. Ensure that you give yourself enough time in the morning to allow this to happen. If you find yourself chronically leaving for work in the morning with a half defrosted windshield, consider investing in a remote car starter if you car isn't already equipped with one. This way your car can defrost itself while you sip your morning coffee from the warmth of your home.
Winter Tires or All Season?
There is a very common belief that "all-season" tires also includes the winter season, and this is not always accurate. A 2002 study conducted by the Quebec Ministry of Transport has shown that equipping your vehicle with proper winter tires vs. all-season ones improve your cars breaking ability by up to 25% in snowy conditions, and they also allow for collision avoidance by up to 38%.
While all-season tires allow for smooth driving on both dry and wet pavement, their tread patterns don't allow for passage over snow as easily as winter tires do. Typically, all-season tires have a "closed tread" pattern, which means they can easily become clogged with snow. All-season tires are not made with cold weather rubber compounds, which means they begin to lose their ability to function properly when the mercury drops below 7 degrees Celsius. The tread on winter tires have a more open tread pattern, which don't clog with snow as quickly and allow them to bite into snow easier. Winter tires are also made with specialized rubber compounds that are meant to perform the best during colder temperatures.
Source: Transports Quebec
How to drive safely in the winter
Update your road safety kit for winter
How prepared are you?
Do you keep an emergency safety kit in your vehicle?See results without voting
Your emergency car kit
It's always a safe bet to have an emergency safety kit in your vehicle, regardless of the season. Doing an inventory of your safety kit and adding a few extras for the winter season will ensure you're prepared for the icy winter roads. You can purchase a pre-assemble safety car kit at most major retailers, or you can make one yourself with an old duffle bag or plastic tote container. Make sure your safety kit includes the following necessities:
- Booster cables
- Tow rope or chains
- First aid kid
- Flashlight and batteries
- Road flares & safety vest, so other cars can see you from a distance
- A Ziploc bag with some change in it (in case you find yourself in an area with no cell reception and need a payphone, or need to get snacks from a vending machine)
- Bottled water
For winter driving, add the following items to your kit:
- Extra ice scraper
- Warm blanket
- An extra pair of dry, wool socks
- A garden trowel (or a foldable shovel)
- Non-perishable food items (chocolate bars, protein/granola bars)
- Kitty litter or sand (for traction on snowy roads)
- An empty tin can and a candle (don't forget strike anywhere matches!)
Hint: The tin can and candle can serve two functions.
- Light the candle, drop some of the melted wax into the bottom of it, and place the candle onto the wax. The candle can be used to generate heat if necessary.
- If you're simply trying to get your car unstuck from the snow, take your trowel/shovel, dig out as much snow as you can from around the tires, place your candle in the tin can onto the snow around the tires to help melt it, then use your kitty litter under the tires for traction.
Around the House
There's nothing quite like getting cozy by a fireplace on a chilly winters night. While fireplaces and woodstoves are a wonderful way to heat your home in the winter, fire safety needs to be in the forefront of everyone's mind this winter season. According to Fire Prevention Canada, home fires kill eight Canadians every week. In order to best enjoy your fireplace this winter and keep your loved ones warm, cozy and safe keep the following tips in mind:
- Ensure that your chimney has been cleaned professionally before you light it for the first time each season.
- Make sure the wood you are burning is dry enough. Burning wood that is still wet or soggy will only create an excess of smoke.
- Test your smoke alarms every month. You can do so by pressing the button on the alarm itself, or hold a candle that has just been extinguished underneath it. If the smoke alarms don't work, replace the batteries or the alarm entirely.
- Change the batteries in your smoke alarms twice a year. An easy way to remember when they need to be replaced is to do it when the time changes in the Spring and Fall.
Make sure everyone in your family knows what to do in the event of a fire. Have a designated meeting place outside of the home where everyone knows to meet. Create a home evacuation plan and practice it twice a year with your family. Knowing what to do in the event of an emergency helps to keep your head clear and prevent panic during a crisis. For help with creating a home evacuation plan and implementing it with your family, check out Fire Prevention Canada.
In the Driveway
Shovelling snow from the driveway. Ugh. Makes you tired just thinking about it, doesn't it? I once saw a joke on-line about the "Canadian Class system" The punch line being that the only difference between a rich Canadian and the rest of us, is the possession (or lack thereof) of a snow blower. For those of us stuck shovelling the driveway the old fashioned way here are a few rules to remember when clearing your driveway of the white stuff:
- Don't immediately start attacking your driveway as soon as you get outside. Give your body a few minutes to adjust to the cold temperature. Start by doing a few simple stretches before you start shovelling. Working a cold muscle is a guaranteed way to sprain or pull something.
- Go in with a game plan. Once you've limbered up, plan out where you want to move the snow to. There's nothing worse than clearing a tiny little patch of snow, only to realize you've got to shovel it all out of the way again. You want to be efficient and not have to move the same pile of snow more than once.
- Have the proper tools. Invest in a good, sturdy shovel, and give yourself a helping hand by coating it with a little Pam cooking spray before you start. It'll help to prevent the snow from sticking to your shovel, making the load a little lighter.
- Take your time, and take breaks often. Thirty minutes of shovelling snow is the equivalent to a half hour work out at the gym. Pace yourself, if you get tired, take a break or ask for help. If you have a heart condition, consider investing in a snow removal service to come and clear your driveway for you. Or you can always pay little Billy down the street a small fee to clear it for you.
Severe Winter Weather
Emergency Kits for at Home
For those of us living in Eastern Canada and the Northeastern United States, the Great Ice Storm of 1998 is a prime example of why it pays to have an emergency kit in your home.
The Ice Storm of 1998 left over 4 million people in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick without power, in the middle of January. 28 people died, many from hypothermia and another 945 people were injured. I personally remember sleeping in my bed wearing my full snow suit and every pair of mittens and socks I could find. Put together a home emergency kit and keep it stocked with the following items:
- Battery Operated or Crank Radio
- Extra Batteries
- Bottled Water
- Blankets/Sleeping bag
- Canned food that won't spoil & a hand held can opener
- Extra sets of keys for your house and car
- Any medications that may be needed by anyone in the house
- If there's a baby in the family, be sure to keep any extra baby products, like formula, baby food and extra diapers
- Plenty of candles, matches and lighters
- Water purifying tablets
- Extra socks, mittens/gloves
- Basic tool kit (hammer, pocket knife, screwdriver)
- Duct tape
- Toilet Paper
- A few cans of cat and/or dog food, if you have pets
- A backpack (in case you need to evacuate. You can quickly pick out the items you need most to take with you)
Keep your kit in an easily accessible area of your home and make sure everyone knows where to find it. A large plastic tote bin is big enough to store everything you need and allows for easy storage. To maximize space, vacuum seal your sleeping bags/blankets and extra dry clothing. A suitcase on wheels would also work, in case you needed to evacuate your home.
Winter Safety for Pets
If you feel like it's too cold outside for you, your beloved pet probably feels the same way. Although your pooch may love playing outside in the snow, domesticated animals are not adapted to living in outdoor conditions, this is especially true when it's cold outside. To ensure your pets have a safe winter season, whether they go outdoors or are strictly indoor pets, here are a few winter safety tips for Fido and Whiskers.
- When going outside to enjoy winter activities, consider leaving your pooch at home. Nobody ever plans to have an accident or get lost while snowshoeing, but it does happen. If you can't garuantee you'll be able to get warm shelther for your pooch, then leave them at home.
- For shorter haired pooches, consider getting them a jacket to help keep them warm during their walks. For longer haired dogs, make sure you continue to get their paws groomed (or do it yourself if your pup will let you). Keeping their nails short helps them navigate better in the snow. Keeping the fur between their toes short also helps to prevent ice and snow from sticking to the fur between their toes, which can be uncomfortable for them.
- While Anti-freeze may be required to keep your car running in the winter, make sure you store it properly and safely. Keep the lids closed tight and on shelves where little paws can't reach it. Make sure to clean any spills up thoroughly. Animals are attracted to the sweet taste of anti-freeze, and ingesting it can cause death. Even a little bit can cause serious health issues.
- After they come back inside from their walks, make sure to wipe down their paws and bellies. The salt and other chemicals used to melt snow can irritate their skin and paws. It can also cause health issues if they lick themselves and ingest it.
- When you're brushing the snow off of your car in the morning, be sure to give a few good taps on your hood and your tires. Cats left outside in the cold will often sleep underneath cars at night to keep warm. You can potentially injury a kitty if you start your car while they're laying underneath it.
- While your pet may love lounging by the fireplace on a cold winters day, don't let them lay too close or for too long. Make sure your fireplace also has a screen on it. The prolonged exposure to the heat can cause their skin to become very dry and itchy, causing discomfort. It can also potentially lead to respiratory issues.
- While we all know the dangers of leaving an animal in a hot car during the summer, the same precautions need to be taken during the winter. Leaving an animal in a parked car for extended periods of time during the winter is like leaving them trapped in a giant freezer. If left alone long enough, they could freeze to death.
If you see an animal that you feel may have been kept outside too long, or left alone in a cold car, please report it to your local Humane Society.
Remember, there's no need to hibernate all winter! The key to having a happy winter season is being prepared for everything Old Man Winter might throw at you.
My favourite tip out of all of this information is to have an emergency kit. You may not always remember to stretch before you shovel snow. You'll probably curse yourself at least once during the winter for forgetting your mittens but having an emergency kit ready in your car and one in your house is such a simple thing to do. Take an afternoon to put them together, then you don't have to think about it unless you need it. If you'd like to purchase a vehicle safety kit you can pick one up at any major retailer (I got mine at Wal-Mart) or check with your local St. John Ambulance or Red Cross.
If you'd like safety tips specific to a particular winter outdoor activity (ice hockey, skiing, etc.) Check out Adventuresmart.ca for tips related to all winter related sports activities.
If you'd like to learn more about First Aid training and CPR skills, check out fellow Hubber JPSO138. He has a variety of wonderful First Aid & CPR related hubs. His hub on First Aid Training is a great place to start if you need a refresher on first aid skills.
Thanks for taking the time to read my hub. I hope you found the information helpful. If you have any comments, critiques, ideas or fun winter stories to share, please post in the comments section below! I'd love to hear from you.
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