10 Crazy Cold Weather Injuries and How to Stay Safe
The splendor of a snow-covered forest or a sparkling meadow can sometimes make us forget just how dangerous winter can really be. From 2006 to 2010, approximately 2,000 U.S. residents died each year from weather-related causes of death, with wintertime being the deadliest season, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 123. Freezing temperatures bring particular situations and dangers that can lead to injury and even death. Be prepared for hazardous winter conditions, and keep those you care about safer by familiarizing yourself with some of the specific injuries that happen only during the winter months.
1. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning While Trying to Stay Warm
Carbon monoxide, or CO, is a toxic gas produced by stoves, lanterns, gas ranges, portable generators and burning charcoal and wood. It can accumulate in enclosed spaces, poisoning people or animals by inhalation. Accidental CO poisoning is responsible for more than 20,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms and almost 500 deaths each year in the United States, according to the CDC 1. Nearly two-thirds of these incidents occur between November and February, when people turn on furnaces and portable heaters to stay warm or use portable gas generators during winter-storm power outages. Anyone can be poisoned from inhaling carbon monoxide, but the very young, the very old and those with chronic heart disease, anemia or breathing problems are at the greatest risk. Keep yourself and those you love safe by getting a carbon monoxide alarm. Never use a gas oven or range to warm your home, and keep gas generators at least 20 feet from the house when in use. And in case of an accidental CO poisoning, know the most common symptoms, which include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. If you suspect CO poisoning, immediately leave the area for a better-ventilated one and call 911 or go to the emergency room.
2. Heart Attack From Shoveling Snow
Strains and sprains aren’t the only dangers shoveling snow can bring (but see slide 10 for those). When winter snows fall and scores of people are forced to clear their walks and driveways, Mikhail Varshavski, D.O., a family and sports medicine specialist in Summit, New Jersey, sees a spike in heart attacks. He and other doctors often warn older individuals or those who have heart disease (or who even think they might) against shoveling snow. In addition to the strenuous work shoveling snow entails, the cold outdoor temperatures actually raise the risk for a heart attack 5. The cold cause the arteries of the body to constrict, which increases blood pressure. Listening to your body is important, Varshavski says. If you notice any unusual sensations -- including pressure or discomfort in the chest; discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath, even without chest discomfort; breaking out in a cold sweat; nausea or lightheadedness -- call 911 immediately. If you have heart attack risk factors, such as high cholesterol, peripheral arterial disease (PAD) or are middle-aged or older, don’t shovel snow. Instead, hire a neighborhood teenager or local snowplow service to clear your walks and driveway.
3. Alcohol-Related Hypothermia
Sipping a hot toddy before going out in the cold might temporarily make you feel warm, but alcohol causes your body to divert blood from your core to your skin, says Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., board-certified dermatologist with Rapaport Dermatology in Beverly Hills, California. This ultimately lowers your core temperature, which can be extremely risky when outside is freezing. Drinking too much can also give you a false bravado and impair your judgment, leading you to not dress as warmly as you should or to get lost, Shainhouse says. Losing consciousness while outside is another hazardous possibility. “Alcohol can make you lose your balance and reflexes,” she says. “If you were to fall in the snow or icy water, you might not be able to get back up.” Take steps to be safe, she says. “Stick with friends, dress warmly on cold nights and have a preplanned way of getting home.”
4. Icicle Injuries or Death
Icicles suspended from buildings and other structures may be a delightful winter sight, but they can also be deadly. A half-pound icicle plummeting from a tall building or high wire can reach speeds of 80 to 90 mph and exert a 1,000-pound force on whatever (or whomever) it hits. But icicles can cause damage or injury even when falling from a short distance. Avoid walking beneath areas where there may be icicles. Not only might an icicle drop, but the weight of icicles can cause gutters, awnings and ornamental features to collapse and fall from buildings as well. High winds or a slight warming can increase the risk of falling icicles. Watch out for warning signs and avoid any streets or pedestrian routes that are closed due to the threat of falling ice. If you’re thinking about removing large icicles from your home, rather than risking the safety of yourself and others, Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Building Inspection recommends hiring a contractor with the proper training and equipment to handle the dangerous task.
5. Mouth Scalds From Hot Chocolate
Few things warm a winter chill like a steaming mug of hot chocolate. But every year this innocent indulgence is responsible for countless burns to the mouth, especially in young children, says Gregory Cumberford, D.D.S., a Canadian dentist who helped establish Calgary’s Alex Dental Health Bus, which provides free dental care to children in need. Cumberford explains that because the tissue in the mouth is incredibly sensitive, scalding it can be extremely painful. To help soothe the pain of mild burns, he recommends sucking on an ice cube or drinking a cool liquid, particularly milk, since it tends to coat the mouth. If the person is otherwise healthy, mild burns to the mouth should heal in about a week. Severe burns, however, can cause blistering, redness and even mouth numbness from nerve damage, Cumberford says. In such cases, he recommends seeing a dentist or doctor, who can provide medication to prevent infection and ease the pain. Use common sense to lower the chances of a burn and wait for the drink to cool before serving or drinking it.
6. Recreational Hockey Injuries
“I see a lot of broken teeth, lacerated lips and facial trauma during the winter months,” says dentist Dr. Gregory Cumberford. A number of these injuries are the result of hockey accidents -- particularly when players are not wearing the proper protective gear. Just last winter, one of Cumberford’s patients lost a tooth after being hit in the face with a hockey stick and broke his after being hit in the face by a hockey puck. “The best thing for recreational hockey players is to wear the full face mask and a mouth guard,” he says. While the over-the-counter boil-and-bite mouth guards are better than nothing, Cumberford doesn’t actually recommend them. “They’re not custom fit to your teeth and offer minimal protection,” he says. “A mouth guard made by a dentist and a dental lab gives you your best chance for protection.”
Frostbite is a severe cold injury to the skin and underlying tissue layers and sometimes to deeper structures like fat, muscles and nerves. “It mostly involves exposed areas, such as nose, lips, ears, cheeks and chin,” says dermatologist Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, “but it can affect fingers and toes too.” Frostbite damage can occur within minutes to hours of winter exposure, depending on the severity of the cold, and causes pain that may last for months. “If the tissue is too severely damaged, it can require amputation,” she says. To protect yourself from frostbite, cover as much of your exposed skin as possible when going outdoors in freezing temperatures. Stay dry and remove wet clothing as soon as possible. Avoid alcohol when going out in the cold, but also avoid nicotine. “Nicotine will cause additional constriction of your blood vessels, reducing blood flow and oxygen to your tissues,” Dr. Shainhouse says. At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect exposed skin. If an area of your body is white or grayish yellow, if the skin feels unusually firm or waxy or if there’s numbness, seek medical care immediately.
Related: Finger Frostbite Signs
8. Ski and Snowboard Accidents
Each of the various winter sports has their own individual common injuries, says Francesco Gallaro, physical therapist and strength and conditioning coach in New York. He points out that skiers, for example, who have both limbs free while their ankles are held in stable boots, tend to have a greater incidence of knee ligament injury. Snowboarders, on the other hand, with both limbs stabilized on the board, rarely experience knee injury and instead often contend with wrist fractures and shoulder issues from falling and bracing themselves. “The initial response for most of these injuries is RICE -- rest, ice, compression and elevation,” Gallaro says, “followed by seeking out professional guidance from orthopedic physicians and physical therapists.” One way to lower the risk of a ski or snowboard injury is to adopt a training program that not only stresses proper joint mobility, but also addresses the neuromuscular command necessary to control your body’s range of motion, Gallaro says. Additionally, work on exercises that help increase connective tissue load capacity; that is, “we need to direct load and force to help make tissue stronger, so the next time trauma occurs, the body’s tissue can absorb more shock and load without injury,” he says.
Related: 25 Great Winter Olympians
9. Slips and Falls on Icy Surfaces
When it comes to trauma calls for emergency rooms, certain times of the year are busier than others for the different specialists. “For the orthopedic surgeon,” says Barbara Bergin, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic surgeon in Austin, Texas, “it’s the first day of a freeze. No one is prepared.” Slips and falls are already quite common, particularly in the elderly -- and their likelihood increases on slippery surfaces such as slush and ice, says spine surgeon Andrew M. Cash, M.D., a Las Vegas-based spinal surgeon. “Slip-and-fall injuries account for a myriad of sprains and strains to the musculoskeletal system, especially the neck and back,” he says. When snow and ice are on the ground, lower your risk of slipping with a few precautions. Take things slowly, always allow yourself extra time to get where you’re going and wear appropriate footwear, Dr. Bergin says. Avoid shoes with heels or smooth soles. As an alternative, choose shoes or boots with nonslip, grooved soles for traction. Take short steps or shuffle for stability. When traveling by vehicle, be especially careful when entering or exiting and use the vehicle for support when you get out. Should you find yourself falling, try to avoid landing on your knees, wrists or spine, and instead try to fall on a fleshy part of your body like your side. You’ll also be better off if you can avoid tensing up, going limp to reduce the risk of worsening the injury.
10. Strains and Sprains From Shoveling Snow
In 2014, Roughly 48,000 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries that occurred while manually shoveling or removing snow and ice, reports the Consumer Product Safety Commission's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. You can, however, take precautions to avoid hurting yourself, says Curtis Cunningham, physical therapist and program manager of outpatient rehabilitation at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. Allow yourself plenty of time to get the job done so you don’t strain yourself physically and stress yourself emotionally. Warm up before shoveling snow with stretching exercises for your arms, legs and back. Make sure you’re using the right shovel and handle for your size, Cunningham says. “The closer the shovel with the snow on it can stay to your body, the easier and less heavy it will be,” he says. “If the handle is too long, it will be farther from your body and each load will be heavier than it needs to be.” You should be able to shovel the snow only bending your knees, not your back. “Backs don’t react well to a lot of twisting, especially while carrying something heavy, like a shovel and snow,” Cunningham says. Take frequent breaks and do some quick stretching exercises when you’ve finished shoveling.
What Do YOU Think?
What are your thoughts on these hazards of winter? Have you or someone you know experienced any of the injuries listed? What happened? How was the situation handled? Can you think of any other winter injuries that were not included? Share your stories with the Livestrong.com community in the comments below.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Health Statistics Report -- Deaths Attributed to Heat, Cold, and Other Weather Events in the United States, 2006–2010
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning Prevention
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning -- Frequently Asked Questions
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) -- Carbon Monoxide Exposures --- United States, 2000--2009
- Cleveland Clinic: Snow Shoveling -- A Real Risk for Heart Attack
- American Heart Association: Shoveling Snow Health Hazards
- AccuWeather.com: Winter Hazard: Large Icicles Can Prove Deadly and Destructive
- Federal Emergency Management Agency: FEMA Snow Load Safety Guidance
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Emergency Preparedness and Response -- Frostbite