The cold snap plaguing large swaths of the country is set to continue — and, in many areas, intensify — this week, as a “bomb cyclone” approaching the East Coast threatens to deliver frigid temperatures and possible blizzard conditions.
With dangerously low temperatures, not to mention wind chill, bearing down upon us, we asked Matthew Levy, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, how to best protect yourself from the snow and cold during Winter Storm Grayson.
Minimize time outside
“It’s much easier to keep somebody warm than it is to have to re-warm them once they start to get cold,” Levy says. “This is where an ounce of prevention goes a long way.”
Levy says conditions such as hypothermia (dangerously low internal body temperature) and frostbite (freezing of the skin and underlying tissues) aren’t out of the question during serious storms, especially for the elderly, the young and those with chronic medical conditions.
With that in mind, try to limit time in the cold and layer properly for any outdoor excursions. Cover as much of your skin as possible, Levy suggests, and pay particular attention to exposed skin such as your hands and face. If you notice your skin starting to change color or taking on a waxy appearance, you may be in danger of developing frostbite.
Limit physical activity
“When it’s this cold out, [people are] under increased physical and physiologic stress and they need to not overdo it,” Levy cautions. Shoveling snow, for example, can place quite a bit of strain on your heart, especially in frigid temperatures. “Shoveling snow is a lot of physical exertion, and if you’re not in good physical shape this isn’t the time to stress your body that way,” Levy says.
Those with respiratory issues should also be extra cautious, Levy adds, as dry winter air can exacerbate breathing problems. And everybody should take extra care when moving around outdoors, as the cold, frozen ground can lead to slips, trips and falls.
Be cautious with generators
“Carbon monoxide kills people every year,” Levy says. “People have to be very careful about generators.” Ideally, he says, you should minimize fumes by keeping generators at least 20 feet from your house.
Another hazard? Using the oven as an additional heat source, Levy says. “That is both a fire hazard, and it could also be a carbon monoxide hazard,” he says.
Have backup plans
Even if you’re not planning to be outdoors, it’s important to prepare before a winter storm. Levy suggests keeping cold weather gear and blankets in the car in case of accidents or break-downs. “Cars are very poor insulators of heat,” he says. “Even being broken down on the side of the road for a little bit of time could be problematic for people.”
It’s also a good idea, he adds, to keep bottled water — roughly a gallon per person — at home in case of frozen pipes or a power outage.
Health risks don’t disappear when the flakes stop falling. A 2016 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that heart-related hospital admissions decrease by 32% on the day of a winter storm, but jump by 23% two days after a snowfall, perhaps because at-risk populations tend to stay indoors — or are unable to get to a hospital — during the storm itself. Cold- and fall-related injuries also increase in frequency for roughly a week following a storm, the study found.