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Frostbite, Overexertion and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Are Serious but Preventable Winter Weather Emergencies

Be Prepared for Winter Weather with Health Department’s Cold Weather Tips

The New York State Department of Health is urging New Yorkers to take precautions, as the first day of winter arrives, to prevent serious injury and dangerous health complications that can result from colder weather and winter activities.

“Winter can be a delightful time to enjoy outdoor activities, but being prepared for the weather is key to ensuring those activities don’t turn into tragedies,” State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said. “Dressing appropriately to avoid frostbite, avoiding overexertion by knowing your physical limits, being smart when using generators and space heaters, and making sure you are aware of road conditions before you travel are all common-sense practices to keep you and your loved ones safe and healthy through the winter months.”

Exposure to extreme cold can cause life-threatening conditions, such as hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia is a dangerous cooling of body temperature over time which can be fatal if not detected immediately and treated properly. Those most at risk are infants, the elderly and those who work or play outdoors but it can also occur indoors if the thermostat is set too low. Warning signs of hypothermia in adults include shivering, fatigue, drowsiness, exhaustion, blue skin and/or numbness, confusion/disorientation, memory loss, slurred speech and a glassy stare. Infants may appear to have very low energy and cold, bright red skin.

Frostbite is especially dangerous because it often occurs with little warning. Those with diabetes, people who smoke and those intoxicated by alcohol or drug use can be especially susceptible to frostbite, which causes numbness and red, waxy-looking skin. Symptoms can come on so quickly that individuals suffering from frostbite may be unaware and remain in cold conditions, which increases the chance of permanent damage to body tissue.

Precautions to avoid these dangerous occurrences include layering clothing to avoid the loss of body heat, wearing hats, gloves and boots, and replacing wet or damp clothing with dry clothes and blankets to warm up as soon as possible. Additional tips for preventing frostbite and hypothermia are included in this Department video.

Cold weather also places an extra burden on the heart and lungs. Individuals with cardiac problems, asthma/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or high blood pressure should follow their doctor’s advice about shoveling or any strenuous outdoor exercise. Healthy adults should also dress appropriately for weather conditions and work slowly when undertaking heavy outdoor chores to avoid potential problems.

The likelihood of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, which can produce headaches, dizziness, nausea, weakness or confusion, is exacerbated during the winter months, when fuel-burning devices such as generators are more likely to be in use. Generators should always be operated out of doors, far away from windows, doors and vents that could allow exhaust to seep inside. Generators should never be operated in basements, carports, crawlspaces or attached garages to avoid a potentially fatal CO build-up. Learn more about the proper use of generators here.

Additionally, furnace and heating systems should be inspected annually to ensure they are running properly and safely, and vents to the outside should be checked regularly to make sure they are not blocked with snow or ice. And never run your car, truck, or motorcycle inside a garage that is attached to a house — or in a detached garage with the garage door shut. Installing CO detectors in your home and making sure detectors are properly operating can protect your family from dangerous gas buildup and save lives.

If an alternate source for heat is needed, such as a fireplace, wood stove or portable kerosene heater, it should be vented to the outside. Stoves or outdoor grills or ovens should never be used to provide heat indoors.

Driving conditions can also be a challenge during winter weather, with snow and ice affecting visibility and road surfaces, making for a potentially treacherous journey. Taking steps before you head out can help avoid dangerous situations. Check the weather forecast and media reports for storm warnings or road hazards along the way and at your destination. Drivers can also check for travel alerts and road conditions by viewing the traffic cameras at sites such as 511NY.org.

For additional information on staying safe and health during the winter, visit the Department’s Cold Weather Advice webpage.