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The cold weather has arrived (too soon for many of us), so it is a good time to review winter safety. While this time of year brings lots of outdoor fun – from skiing to sledding and skating – there is the ever present risk of frostbite and hypothermia. Proper preparation is critical to keep your family safe.

Proper dress is step one. Infants and children must be dressed warmly for outdoor activities. The most effective strategy is to focus on LAYERS. Have children wear several thin layers – with at least one being filled with down, Polertec or some type of manmade insulation material. A good rule of thumb for younger kids is to dress them in one more layer than an adult would wear in the same weather conditions. And, of course, a warm hat and boots are a must. Try to encourage family members to wear mittens as they are warmer than gloves. Should any of these layers become wet -it should be removed immediately. Parents with young infants should be reminded to resist the temptation to bundle their kids in with blankets or quilts as these can be associated with suffocation deaths and contributors to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Hypothermia develops when a person’s body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This typically happens when kids are left to play for prolonged periods in the cold – especially if their clothes get wet. It should be noted that hypothermia can occur more quickly in children than in adults. Signs of hypothermia begin with shivering and progress to lethargy, confusion and poor coordination. If a child begins to shiver and have chills they should be taken indoors immediately – wet clothing should be removed and replaced with warm blankets. If the child exhibits any degree of clumsiness, slurred speech or lethargy – call 911 at once.

Frostbite occurs when the skin and outer layers of tissue actually freeze. The extremities – fingers, toes and ears are most at risk for frostbite. The area may start to burn or feel numb and will appear gray or pale – and sometimes even blistered. If frostbite develops – the affected area should be placed in warm (not hot) water – if possible at 104 degrees F – around the same temperature as most hot tubs. If the ears, nose or lips seem to be frostbitten, warm washcloths can be applied. Do NOT rub the affected area. After a few minutes of exposure to warm water – dry the area and cover with warm clothing. Give the person something warm to drink. If the numbness or burning continues for more than a few minutes – call your doctor immediately.

Winter Travel can be especially treacherous and requires extra preparation. Winter in Chicago frequently brings snowy and icy road conditions. Inexperienced drivers should consider staying home during extreme weather, or consider practice driving in an empty parking lot. For families needing to travel – keep your car gassed up so that the fuel lines don’t freeze. Remember to clean snow off taillights and headlights. Watch out for slow-moving vehicles like snowplows.

Prepare a car emergency kit with the following items:

  • a snow brush and an ice scraper
  • a bag of sand or cat litter (for traction in snow)
  • a first aid kit
  • a blanket
  • a flashlight and batteries
  • nonperishable snack foods
  • a candle and matches
  • a cup to melt snow for water

If you get stranded, stay with your vehicle. Run the heater occasionally to keep warm, but avoid carbon monoxide poisoning by making sure your tailpipe isn’t plugged by snow or other debris.

Outdoor activities can provide great family memories but can lead to danger if not done safely. If kids are sledding, parents should make sure the hill is not too steep and that there are no rocks, trees, or other obstructions. And of course –avoid areas near car traffic.  The safest way to ride is sitting up (there’s less risk of head injury this way), and it is better to have a sled that can be steered.

For ice skaters, manmade rinks are the best choice. For families that want to skate on a pond or a lake, be sure the ice is at least 4 to 6 inches thick with no holes or soft spots. Skiers and snowboarders must have proper safety equipment, including helmets that fit correctly, and correct techniques to reduce risk of injury.

Indoor dangers – can also lead to tragedy if ignored. The risk of house fires also increases with cold weather. Make sure holiday decorations are placed away from heaters and fireplaces; check the wires on light strings for fraying or bad connections. Never leave a room where there are lit candles. Keep electric or kerosene space heaters away from flammable materials such as curtains, furniture and people.   Yearly chimney inspections and cleanings are a must for homes that use a fireplace or woodstove.

Check all smoke detectors to make sure they have fresh batteries and that they are functioning properly. Homes should also be fitted with Carbon monoxide (CO) defectors.   Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by wood- or gas-fueled appliances (such as heaters, stoves, water heaters, or dryers) that don’t burn properly, as well as by charcoal grills and automobiles. Symptoms of CO poisoning include prolonged headache and feeling extremely tired. If multiple people are experiencing these symptoms – leave the house and contact emergency services.

With proper preparation families can ensure that winter marks a time for wonderful memories and not injury or danger.