Keeping Your Cool in the Cold and Snow

Cold weather offers many pleasures, whether you're heading for the great outdoors or just curling up with a book and a warm blanket. But there are some things you need to prepare for.

Braving the Cold

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Think layers when you venture outdoors into the chill of winter. Clothes filled with down, Polartec, or other manmade insulating materials offer the best protection. Wear a hat and use mittens if possible (they're warmer than gloves).

If sledding is your sport, choose your hill carefully. Avoid areas that are too steep or have obstructions like rocks or trees. The best sleds are those that you can steer; the safest way to ride is sitting up (there's less risk of head injury this way).

For ice skaters, manmade rinks are the best choice because the surface is smooth and there's no danger of falling into frigid waters. If you do 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.

Want to try snowboarding or skiing? If you're new to a sport, it's a good idea to take lessons. An experienced instructor can give you advice on choosing equipment, clothing, and accessories, and also can explain techniques to help you avoid (or reduce your risk of) injuries.

Helping your parents, grandparents, or older neighbors clear their snowy sidewalks is a great workout. For most teens, shoveling snow is not a problem, since they're usually in better physical condition than adults. But remember to bend your knees as you lift to avoid shoulder, back, and neck injuries.

Winter Travel

Traveling during cold weather requires special precautions. If you snowmobile, you should wear several layers of clothing, a helmet, and glasses or goggles. Be especially cautious when crossing roads. It's best to avoid frozen lakes and rivers because drowning is a leading cause of snowmobile fatalities.

Driving a car is not easy in wintry weather. If you're an inexperienced driver, your best bet is to stay off the road during bad weather. To practice, ask someone with winter driving experience to take you to a vacant parking lot where you can practice driving, turning, and stopping in the snow.

If you must 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.

Put together a car emergency kit that contains:

  • an ice scraper and a snow brush
  • a bag of sand or cat litter (for traction in snow)
  • flares
  • a blanket
  • a flashlight and batteries
  • a first-aid kit
  • nonperishable snack foods
  • a candle and matches
  • a cup in case you need 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.

Winter Emergencies

People who stay out in the cold too long may risk frostbite and hypothermia. With frostbite, your body tissue literally freezes. Frostbite is fairly rare in teens' everyday outdoor activities, but if your ears, toes, or fingers feel really cold, get out of the cold. If the discomfort or tingling doesn't go away after a half hour or so, it's time to call a doctor.

Hypothermia happens when a person's body temperature falls below 95º F (35º C) and his or her normal body functions start to fail. A person who is out in the cold too long, gets wet in the cold, or stays in water that is below body temperature too long may exhibit symptoms of hypothermia, which include chills, shivering, confusion, and difficulty with coordination.

If you suspect that someone has hypothermia, get the person inside, out of wet clothes and into dry ones, and wrapped in warm blankets. Feed the person warm liquids and call for emergency medical help.

Beating the Winter Woes

Here are some other ways to keep safe during wintry weather:

  • Whether you travel by snowshoe, car, or snowmobile, it's always a good idea to let someone know where you're going and when you expect to be back. Don't go solo — take along a buddy who can go for help if there's trouble. Carry extra clothes, especially hats, gloves, and socks.
  • Avoid alcohol. Although alcohol may temporarily make you feel warmer, it doesn't raise your body temperature. And even a drink or two can make it harder for you to make good decisions about your exposure in the cold and about the risks that you should take while outdoors. Don't drink and drive in any weather.
  • Pay attention to your body's signals. When you feel cold or uncomfortable, go inside, get warmed up, and change into dry clothes before venturing out again. It's the best way to ensure that you'll stay healthy and safe and ready to go no matter what the weather.

Chilling Out Indoors

Even indoors, there are some cold-weather health hazards to watch out for. More people come down with colds and the flu as activities move indoors for the winter. Avoid missing out on winter fun by getting your flu vaccine. Eat healthy foods and get enough rest to boost your immune system. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly to stop the spread of germs.

The risk of house fires also increases with cold weather. At holiday time, make sure decorations are placed away from heaters and fireplaces; check the wires on light strings for fraying or bad connections. If you light candles, blow them out if you'll be out of the room for a while. Keep electric or kerosene space heaters away from curtains, furniture, or other flammable materials (including yourself!) to avoid fires and burns.

If your family has a woodstove or a fireplace, you may want to remind your parents to get a yearly chimney inspection and cleaning. Also, put new batteries in smoke detectors and check that they are all functioning properly.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is another indoor danger. Carbon monoxide (CO) 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.

Feeling very tired (more than usual) and having long-lasting headaches are both symptoms of CO poisoning. You should also be suspicious if other people in the house are experiencing these symptoms at the same time. Having carbon monoxide detectors in your home is a good idea, too.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: February 2011

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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