Brr, it’s cold outside! Here’s a look at 4 winter weather health risks

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A look at 4 winter weather health risks, according to experts
‘Tis the season of sub-zero temperatures, driveways full of snow, and unfriendly wind chill. Global News looks at four health risks the brutal winter weather brings our way – Dec 21, 2016

‘Tis the season of sub-zero temperatures, driveways full of snow, and unfriendly wind chill – winter weather is on Canadians’ doorsteps.

Officials have already issued extreme cold weather warnings from Calgary to Toronto and Montreal. In some parts of the country, overnight temperatures have dropped to as low as -27 C.

READ MORE: Calgary weather – city to see coldest temperatures in almost 2 years

Cold weather like this is a nuisance, from icy roads and accidents to bundling up to shovelling the snow in the morning. Aside from the inconveniences, cold weather can affect our health, too.

Global News looks at four health risks the brutal winter weather brings our way.


In extreme cold weather, cold Arctic air hurts 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.

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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.

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.

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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 necessarily 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.

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

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 heart attacks 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, the equivalent of 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. The following factors increase your risk of heart attack while shovelling snow:

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  • 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.

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 surge in patients from winter-related incidents. Which injury happens the most? Broken wrists from taking a fall.

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 who end up with a broken hip from the injury die within a year.

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

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