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Health Department Encourages Outdoor Winter Activities, with Safety Precautions

With winter nearly here, the Putnam County Department of Health is encouraging residents to continue enjoying outdoor activities safely. Even though it is cold, spending time outdoors can be beneficial to your health. Temperatures usually drop about ten degrees each month from October through January, with average lows in December around the freezing point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. These chilly temperatures call for planning and precautions.

“Fresh air and sunshine, paired with walking and other outdoor exercise, can have positive impacts on a person’s physical and mental health especially in winter,” said Health Commissioner Michael J. Nesheiwat, MD.  Dr. Nesheiwat went on to state that, “There are however cold weather risks of which everyone should be informed. If a person’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit due to prolonged exposure to cold, this can lead to hypothermia, a serious and potentially deadly condition. When this occurs, the heart, other organs and the nervous system slow down and malfunction. If left untreated, it can lead to heart or respiratory failure, and possibly death. With awareness and by taking simple prevention measures though, residents can reap many benefits by safely participating in outdoor activities during winter.”

Older adults and infants are among those at higher risk for hyperthermia, since they are less able to regulate their body temperature. Symptoms to watch for include shivering, memory loss, clumsiness or lack of coordination, slurred speech or mumbling, shallow or slow breathing, drowsiness or low energy, and loss of consciousness. Infants suffering from hypothermia may have bright red or cold skin, and low energy. Medical attention is needed if hypothermia is suspected. While awaiting help, the person should be brought to a warm room, and any wet clothing should be removed. To raise the body temperature, cover the body and head with layers of blankets, leaving only the face exposed. If outside, insulate the person from the cold ground.  Skin-to-skin contact can also help to raise the body temperature. If the person is alert and able to swallow, warm drinks will increase body temperature too. However, with severe hypothermia, a person may be unconscious and not have a pulse. Call for emergency assistance and begin performing CPR.

Certain factors increase the risk for hypothermia. These include exhaustion, older age, very young age, mental health issues, dehydration, certain medications, and alcohol or drug use. However, anyone can suffer from hypothermia given the right set of circumstances. Even athletes can become hypothermic during strenuous outdoor activities, losing heat quickly if they become extremely overtired, dehydrated, and damp from sweat. Hypothermia can also occur indoors, and this is of particular concern with the elderly. Recommendations from the National Institute of Aging suggest setting the thermostat to at least 68 to 70 F. Infants less than one year of age should never sleep in a cold room. To prevent loss of body heat, they should sleep in warm clothing, not with blankets which put them at higher risk for sudden infant death syndrome or SIDs.

Frostbite is another cold weather concern. This injury is caused by the freezing of a person’s skin and underlying tissues, typically hands, feet, nose, ears, chin, and cheeks. Having poor circulation or not being properly dressed for the outdoors can put someone at a greater risk of developing frostbite. With early frostbite, also known as frostnip, no permanent damage occurs. The earliest signs are cold skin with a prickling sensation, which leads to numbness. As frostbite worsens, discolored skin and a hard or waxy appearance to the skin develops. Discolored skin can vary—red, white, blueish-white, grayish-yellow, purplish, brown, or ashen tones may result. The color depends on the severity of frostbite and the skin’s usual color. Move to a warm environment as soon as possible and put the affected area in warm water or use body heat to warm the area. Rubbing the area is not recommended—it can increase skin damage. Frostbite should also be evaluated by a healthcare provider.

Wind chill and rain intensify the effect of low temperatures. In these situations, waterproof and wind-resistant jackets and shoes may be necessary to keep a person warm and dry. Wearing multiple loose layers of clothing, as well as hats, mittens or gloves, and scarfs are effective methods for limiting cold weather problems and appreciating the full benefits and enjoyment of outdoor winter activities. Let’s not forget too that despite increasing COVID vaccination rates, outdoor activities are still among the safest.

The mission of the Putnam County Department of Health, nationally accredited by the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB), is to improve and protect the health of the Putnam County community, composed of nearly 100,000 residents. Core services include community health assessment, disease surveillance and control, emergency preparedness, environmental health protection, family health promotion and health education. For more information, please visit the Putnam County website at www.putnamcountyny.com, or visit the health department social media sites on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @PutnamHealthNY.

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