January 8, 2014 1:36 pm

Brrr, it’s cold outside! 4 winter weather health risks

TORONTO – Sub-zero temperatures, unfriendly wind chill and snow, sleet and ice are leaving Canadians bundled up and still freezing.

Cold weather like this usually isn’t fun, and it can affect our health. Global News looks at four health risks the brutal winter weather brings our way.

Frostbite: In most cases, that cold Arctic air is hurting our extremities – think hands, feet, fingers, nose, or cheeks because those areas are most exposed.  It’s the perfect storm for frostbite, according to Dr. Stephen Meldon, an emergency room doctor at Cleveland Clinic. Exposed skin is at risk for frostbite, especially.

It starts with a cold feeling and then it becomes painful with the affected area going numb. Mild frostbite can be treated by submerging the area in warm, not hot water. It might be painful once the tissue starts to warm up but if the pain is unbearable, Meldon suggests heading to the hospital.


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READ MORE: Why extreme weather stops us cold

In extreme cold, such as -25 C or -30 C, skin may become prone to frostbite in about five minutes. Keep your kids bundled up – that means thick socks, waterproof boots, gloves, a hat or earmuffs and a warm scarf.

Falling on ice: Slipping on ice or snow is a rite of passage in Canadians winters. This time of year is when emergency room visits for fractures, broken bones and sprained ankles spike. Physiotherapists and doctors alike note a spike in patients from winter-related incidents. Which injury happens the most? Broken wrists from taking a fall.

A winter lab in Toronto is even studying how to avoid those nasty wipe-outs. For seniors, the injury from taking a fall could leave their health in a precarious position. One in three seniors in Canada falls each year and up to 40 per cent that end up with a broken hip from the injury die within a year.

READ MORE: Canadian scientists study snow slips and falls in winter laboratory

If you’re walking outside, tread carefully and wear boots with a good grip.

Shovelling snow: It might look fluffy and light, but shovelling snow can be exhausting.

“I don’t think people realize how hard they are exerting so you should take frequent breaks. If you get any type of symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath, please stop,” Meldon said.

Dr. Adrian Baranchuk says that on a winter’s day in 2011, he saw eight people come to hospital suffering from a heart attack after they had shovelled snow.

“Snow shovelling is a combination of things that aren’t good for you,” he said.

He is a cardiologist at Kingston General Hospital and professor at Queen’s University’s School of Medicine.

READ MORE: Slipping on your back, breaking bones or triggering a heart attack – Should you be shovelling the winter snow?

Snow shovelling is an isometric activity, like weightlifting. It’s intense compared to lifting hundreds of pounds over the course of an hour.

That causes your blood pressure and heart rate to climb quickly, putting stress on your heart.

- It takes place in the morning. Research has also noted that heart attacks are most common in the early part of the day, when hormones and your nervous system are activated.
– It’s anaerobic exercise. It’s high-activity and very strenuous.
– It happens in extreme temperatures. This doesn’t help because your arteries are narrowed by the cold.
– Snow shovellers don’t warm up before they get to work.
– They also don’t take breaks and push themselves to get the job done.

Heart conditions: It’s well-documented that heart attack deaths increase during the winter, but many attribute that to the cold temperatures. Turns out that may not be the case.

It’s not the temperatures that are deadly for your heart – it’s the shorter days, falling out of good habits and lack of exercise that brings our health and immune systems to our knees.

There are a handful of factors at play that contribute to this increase in wintertime heart attacks, according to co-author Dr. Robert Kloner, director of research at the Heart Institute of Good Samaritan Hospital.

READ MORE: Heart attack risks spike in the winter regardless of temperature, location, doctors say

The dip in temperatures makes blood vessels constrict, driving up your blood pressure. Your heart is forced to work overtime as your blood’s gateways narrow, decreasing blood flow.

Another “interesting phenomena” about winter is that the body’s blood itself thickens, making it more likely to clot when exposed to the cold.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© Shaw Media, 2014

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