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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Baby, it’s cold outside

Stay warm, safe and healthy with these winter weather tips
By Kelly Moyer

Tip No. 1: Cover up and know your body’s warning signs

• Layers are key to preventing over-exposure to the cold weather, says Anne Parrott, Columbia County’s health preparedness coordinator.

“It’s much easier for our bodies to handle cold weather if we layer our clothing,” Parrott says. “If we get too hot we can peel off layers.”

The outer layer needs to be made from a tightly woven fabric to “resist wind, water and the cold more effectively,” Parrott says.

• Cover your extremities with water-resistant gloves, two pair of socks, a warm hat and scarf to retain body heat and stave off cold weather injuries like frost nip or frostbite.

Avoid frost nip (or the more extreme frostbite) by paying attention to your body’s signals.

If your fingers, nose or other body parts feel numb and the top layer of skin feels hard and rubbery, you’re experiencing frost nip, which is a freezing of the top layers of skin, Parrott says.

If you continue to stay outside in the cold temperatures and aren’t properly covered, you could get frostbite or even go into hypothermia, Parrott cautions.

Frostbite is when ice crystals freeze inside the skin, causing the area to turn white and giving it a hard, wooden feel. If someone is experiencing frostbite, move them indoors and soak the affected area in water that is warm but not hot — between 105 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit, Parrott sys.

“You need to gently warm the area until the skin is flushed,” she says. “Once the area is warmed, wrap in a sterile gauze and if it’s fingers or toes, wrap them separately. That will help keep the area warm and protected.”

An extreme risk of cold weather is hypothermia, which is a general cooling of the body’s core temperature. Symptoms of mild hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering and the hands will be numb. It is important to get professional medical help at this point, Parrott says, because re-warming of the body must be done gradually as to not shock the heart, brain or other organs. If you don’t have immediate access to a hospital, wrap the person in blankets, coats or other materials to gently restore heat to the body and avoid jostling the person, Parrott says.

• Jeans aren’t the best material to wear in the wet snow because they absorb moisture, but if you layer them with long johns and don’t get too wet, you’ll be OK. Just make sure they’re loose-fitting jeans, says Parrott, otherwise you’ll constrict your blood flow, making it more difficult to stay warm.

“Tight clothing restricts the blood circulation and we need good circulation to stay warm,,” Parrott says.

• Wear two pair of socks, water resistant shoes or boots and make sure you have a decent tread on your soles to avoid falls. If you carry a walking stick or cane for assistance remember that the stick is only as good as the rubber tip on the end of it, Parrott says.

“Wooden walking sticks are going to slide on the ice and won’t help you avoid falls,” Parrott says.

Tip No. 2: Stay hydrated

Anne Parrott, Columbia County’s public health preparedness coordinator, says one of the best things people can do to avoid winter weather-related health concerns is also one of the easiest — just drink more water.

“One of the things people don’t realize is how dehydrated they’re getting in the winter,” Parrott says. “We don’t drink enough fluids during this time of year and, when we do, we tend to focus on fluids that might be more dehydrating.”

Staying hydrated helps the body regulate its internal temperature. But dehydration can wreak havoc on our systems, causing us to lose energy and feel tired.

Think about it. What’s the first thing you want to reach for when the weather gets cold and you’re feeling tired? Coffee or tea. But caffeinated beverages don’t replenish our body’s lost fluids, Parrott says.

“We perspire in the cold weather, so we’re losing fluids, but when it’s cold and especially when the wind is blowing, it evaporates so quickly we don’t notice it,” Parrott says. “So it’s important to drink plenty of water, fruit juices and some herbal teas.”

Some herbal teas act as diuretics, flushing water from the body, Parrott cautions, so stick with plain water when you can or drink a warming tea like ginger, which helps the body increase blood flow, Parrott says. Other warming foods include garlic and cayenne pepper. “That’s why chili is so appealing in the winter,” Parrott says. “People like the spiciness of it.”

Drinking more fluids and keeping your body hydrated can help ease other winter weather complaints such as chapped lips and dry skin. “Chapped lips can be a sign of the body’s overall hydration status,” Parrott says. “But lips are also affected of course by the cold and the wind.”

And in the season of revelry, remember that alcohol is a big dehydrator. Increase your water intake if you’re going to drink wine, beer or liquor and stay away from really cold beverages, Parrott says.

“My husband and I keep a Brita filter with water in it on the countertop so we have cool, but not cold, water to drink,” Parrott says.

Tip No. 3: Use extra caution with infants in cold weather

Unlike adults and older children, infants cannot regulate their body temperatures by shivering, so cold weather can be especially dangerous to the youngest members of our community, Parrot says.

“Infants lose heat more quickly and they can’t regenerate heat through shivering like adults can,” Parrott says. “So it’s very important to not have your infant sleeping in a cold room.”

At night, make sure your baby is sleeping in a warm room and don’t hesitate to bundle them up when you go outside, Parrott says. “Put on multiple layers of loose clothing on your infants and make sure they have a good hat on, preferably one that ties under their chin,” she says. “I’m not sure if they still make them, but the mittens on a string are a good idea too, so they don’t loose them while you’re out.”

For children out playing in the snow, remember to bring them inside for at least 10 minutes every hour to warm up and drink warm fluids.

And don’t let your little ones eat un-melted snow, Parrott cautions. “Eating cold snow will drop the core temperature of the body, it’s not good for you.”

Tip No. 4: Don’t forget about your pets

The Oregon Humane Society offers the following general advice for keeping your pets safe during inclement winter weather:

• Keep all pets inside when the temperatures drop below 30 degrees to keep your animals from getting frostbite on their ears, nose and feet.

• If you absolutely cannot bring your pets indoors make sure your pets’ outdoor houses are dry and elevated with dry bedding and a flap over the door to keep cold wind out.

• Use plastic food and water bowls instead of metal. Just like ours, your pet’s tongue can freeze to metal when it’s cold outside.

• Give indoor pets less food when they’re not getting as much outdoor exercise, but give outdoor pets more food during the winter months because their bodies will need extra calories to produce more body heat.

• Wipe your pets’ paws when they come in from an outdoor walk to remove salt, antifreeze or other harmful chemicals or ice that may be stuck in their paw pads.

• More dogs get lost in the winter because dogs lose their scent during snowstorms and can’t find their way home, so remember to keep your dog on a leash during walks in the snow and make sure your pets have their ID tags on them at all times.

• Don’t leave pets in the car during the cold weather. Just like in the sun, when cars heat up faster than other spaces, cars cool off quicker too, and can cause an animal to freeze to death in this type of winter weather.

• Watch out when you get in your car in the morning — cats sometimes crawl under cars to keep warm.

Tip No. 5: Be prepared to go it alone

Columbia County experiences a “wide range of winter challenges,” says Parrott, the county’s public health emergency preparedness coordinator.

“In one year we can see ice, snow, rain, freezing rain, windstorms and landslides as a result of all of it,” Parrott says.

And the way the county is structured, with several cities and towns located in remote, hard-to-access regions, can make dealing with winter emergencies extremely difficult for first responders.

When the first snowstorm hit our area last week, a Scappoose water tanker assisting Columbia River Fire & Rescue slid off a slippery road into a ditch. Luckily no one was injured in that accident, but it demonstrates the peril first responders sometimes face in remote regions of Columbia County.

Therefore, Parrott cautions, people in our neck of the great Oregon woods should be ready to go it alone for several days — and in some regions like Mist and Jewel, for up to a week.

“Downed trees, downed power lines, ice, snow, flooding. All of those things can sever our communities,” Parrott says. “So people need to be prepared for winter weather for a minimum of 72 hours and, in the more remote areas, for seven days. Because that’s how long it may take rescuers to reach you.”

Emergency Checklist

Packing emergency kits for your home and car is a good idea no matter where you live, but for Columbia County residents, it can be critical during the winter months. The following emergency kit is from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, which operates “one of the best websites on preparedness,” according to Parrott:

* Water - three gallons for each person who would use the kit and an additional four gallons per person or pet for use if you are confined to your home

* Food - a three-day supply in the kit and at least an additional four-day supply per person or pet for use at home. You may want to consider stocking a two-week supply of food and water in your home.

* Items for infants - including formula, diapers, bottles, pacifiers, powdered milk and medications not requiring refrigeration

* Items for seniors, disabled persons or anyone with serious allergies - including special foods, denture items, extra eyeglasses, hearing aid batteries, prescription and non-prescription medications that are regularly used, inhalers and other essential equipment.

* Kitchen accessories - a manual can opener; mess kits or disposable cups, plates and utensils; utility knife; sugar and salt; aluminum foil and plastic wrap; re-sealable plastic bags

* A portable, battery-powered radio or television and extra, fresh batteries

* Several flashlights and extra, fresh batteries

* A first aid kit

* One complete change of clothing and footwear for each person - including sturdy work shoes or boots, raingear and other items adjusted for the season, such as hats and gloves, thermal underwear, sunglasses, dust masks

* Blankets or a sleeping bag for each person

* Sanitation and hygiene items - shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, comb and brush, lip balm, sunscreen, contact lenses and supplies and any medications regularly used, toilet paper, towelettes, soap, hand sanitizer, liquid detergent, feminine supplies, plastic garbage bags (heavy-duty) and ties (for personal sanitation uses), medium-sized plastic bucket with tight lid, disinfectant, household chlorine bleach

* Other essential items - paper, pencil, needles, thread, small A-B-C-type fire extinguisher, medicine dropper, whistle, emergency preparedness manual

* Entertainment - including games and books, favorite dolls and stuffed animals for small children

* A map of the area marked with places you could go and their telephone numbers

* An extra set of keys and IDs - including keys for cars and any properties owned and copies of driver's licenses, passports and work identification badges

* Cash and coins and copies of credit cards

* Copies of medical prescriptions

* Matches in a waterproof container

* A small tent, compass and shovel

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