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Staying Safe in Colder Weather

Taking a look at winter's hidden dangers.

The snowy sucker punch Old Man Winter threw at us over the weekend demonstrates the wisdom of preparing for surprises outdoors when the Frost Giants reign.

Some of the winter risks and common-sense ways to circumvent them are obvious, like bundling up to keep warm. It is unexpected hazards that can catch you flat-footed. 

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the woods because poison ivy has dropped its leaves you can still get the itch by contacting sap from broken vines.  And while ticks that spread Lyme disease go dormant when the temperature plummets, the adults can start moving during a warm spell above 45 degrees F. Winter is far from over, moreover, when the adults fully emerge and are out for blood, often before the end of February.

Perhaps the most insidious winter health hazard of all — and one of the most dangerous — is hypothermia, clincally described as when the body's core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It occurs when the body loses more heat than it can produce. Hypothermia sneaks up on its victims who, if they fail to recognize the first subtle signs of the condition, may be in real danger by the time they are aware of what is happening.

While hypothermia is most likely at bone-chilling temperatures, it can develop even during springlike temperatures. In fact, most cases occur when the air temperature is between 30 degrees F and 50 degrees F., probably because victims do not expect it. When moisture couples with low temperature, the likelihood of hypothermia skyrockets because water saps body heat 30 times faster than still air. That is why a fly fisherman standing in 50-degree water can be more vulnerable than an ice fisherman standing on frozen water, especially if there is no wind. Falling into the water when it is chilly outside is the prescription for hypothermia.

If unchecked, hypothermia can be fatal, even though at first it seems like only a case of the shivers. As the body loses heat, its energy reserves are depleted and eventually exhausted. When the heat radiates away from the body, its core temperature drops. At first, a victim may feel nothing but eventually, without warning, persistent shivering begins. Unless remedial action is taken at that point, things go downhill fast.

Once the body temperature drops below 95 degrees, exhaustion and weakness set in. Oxygen supply to the brain dwindles, with resultant loss of muscle coordination and scrambled thinking. At this point, the victim is usually too disoriented to take remedial action. If untreated, stupor, collapse and death are fairly certain.

Preventing hypothermia begins before you head outdoors. Have a good meal for energy supply. Hydrate to keep blood flowing. Keep the booze in the bottle. Alchol impairs coordination and thermoregulation.

If hypothermia strikes and immediate medical care is not available, follow the instructions of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Get the victim to someplace warm.
  • Remove wet clothing.
  • Warm the center of the body first.
  • Warm, non-alcoholic beverages can increase body temperature. Not for an unconscious victim.
  • Once body temperature has increased keep the victim dry and covered in a warm blanket, head included.
  • Get medical help as soon as possible.

Perhaps the best advice of all is not to fight the shivers. Once you start shivering, go get warm.

OUTDOORS GOINGS-ON

  • A Department of Energy and Environmental Conservation (DEEP) bird walk will be held at the Kellogg Environmental Center (500 Hawthorne Avenue)  and Osbornedale State Park, Derby, Nov. 11, at 8 a.m. Contact: Donna Kingston (203) 734-2513. Email: donna.kingston@ct.gov
  • The Naugatuck Valley Audubon Society and A Place Called Hope of Killingworth will present a live birds of prey program at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Kellogg Environmental Center, Derby. Donation of $4 per adult, $2 per child. A Place Called Hope rescues, rehabilitates and releases wild injured, orphaned or sick birds of prey. Contact: Donna Kingston (203) 734-2513. Email: donna.kingston@ct.gov

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