The Dangers of Walking in the Cold

When the snow starts to fall and the temperature drops, it's easy to slip into inactivity and hibernate like a bear -- but don't do it. Keeping up your walking program in winter will help you maintain your fitness level all year round.

Getting out of the house can even help some individuals fight off the winter blues, known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD. So try to make it outdoors at least once a day for a walk. Be sure, however, to learn about the dangers of walking in the cold before you step out the door.

Low temperatures and high winds pose the greatest threats to the cold-weather walker. The windchill factor tells you how cold the combination of low temperature and wind feels.

Your own motion as you walk increases the windchill factor. If you don't protect yourself adequately from cold and wind, you run the risk of developing frostbite or hypothermia.

Frostbite is the partial freezing of a part of the body. Ice crystals can form within and between the cells in skin, tendons, muscles, and even bones. Frostbite is caused by overexposure to below-freezing temperatures.

The extremities -- hands, feet, ears, and face -- are most vulnerable because your body decreases blood flow to these areas in order to keep your vital organs and muscles warm. These extremities are also the parts of the body most often left unprotected.

The risk of frostbite is higher in heavy smokers, because nicotine causes constriction of blood vessels in the extremities. Without enough blood warming them, the hands and feet are easy targets for frostbite.

Signs of frostbite include pain and numbness, a white or blue discoloration of the skin, and loss of function in the affected area. Proper treatment of frostbite involves prompt, careful rewarming.

The victim should be moved to a warm area, if possible. The frostbitten area should then be placed in lukewarm -- not hot -- water.

Frostbitten skin should not be rubbed or massaged, as these actions can cause further damage to tissues. Contrary to popular belief, rubbing frostbitten skin with snow is not useful and can be damaging to the skin. Intense heat, from radiators, stoves, or hot water, should not be used because it may burn numbed skin.

Hypothermia is a condition in which body temperature falls well below the normal temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It's caused by prolonged exposure to cold.

The first signs of hypothermia are severe shivering, slurred speech, and difficulty in walking. When body temperature falls below 90 degrees Fahrenheit, shivering usually stops and the patient may be confused or may lapse into unconsciousness. If emergency measures aren't taken to warm the victim, cardiac arrest and death may occur.

Basic treatment for hypothermia is rewarming of the victim. The rewarming must be done gradually to prevent the sudden enlargement of blood vessels at the surface of the body, which may divert too much blood from vital organs.

Medical help should always be obtained for a person with hypothermia. While waiting for help to arrive, the victim should be moved to a warm place, covered with blankets, and, if alert, offered a warm, non-alcoholic beverage. Alcoholic beverages should not be given because they tend to increase heat loss from the body.

Find out how to safely walk in the cold in the next section.

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