6 ways to stay safe when it's dangerously cold

by John Torres, M.D. /  / Updated 
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 27:  Pedestrians try to keep warm as they walk through downtown as the temperature hovered around -5 degrees January 27, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The city, facing another round of severe cold, is expected to see temperatures drop to -15 to -20 degrees this evening and wind chills are anticipated as low as -25 to -45 degrees through Wednesday morning.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 27: Pedestrians try to keep warm as they walk through downtown as the temperature hovered around -5 degrees January 27, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The city, facing another round of severe cold, is expected to see temperatures drop to -15 to -20 degrees this evening and wind chills are anticipated as low as -25 to -45 degrees through Wednesday morning. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)Scott Olson / Getty Images

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We're in the midst of winter and temperatures across the country are plummeting. Forecasters say many people will be facing extremely frigid and dangerous conditions.

As an emergency room doctor there’s one thing I see in nearly every patient who comes in with problems caused by bitter cold weather — they weren’t properly prepared for it.

Here are some ways to protect you and your family:

Walk like a penguin

The number one winter injury in the ER is falling on the ice. Wrist fractures, shoulder injuries, back pain and head trauma —all from losing balance and hitting the hard ground.

Image: Penguins in Terra Nova Bay, Victoria Land, Antarctica
When walking on the ice, think like a penguin: keep your center of gravity over your front leg. BRITAIN'S MOD/ROYAL NAVY/NICKY W / EPA

When walking on snow and ice, keep an eye out for black ice and ice hidden under patches of snow and be ready for a fall.

Walk like a penguin on ice: Walk slow, feet shoulder distance apart and take small waddle steps. That keeps your center of gravity over your front leg.

The biggest tip: take your hands out of your pockets. Use your arms for balance. And if you do fall, as hard as it might be, try to relax and not land on one outstretched arm.

Dressing for the weather

  • Wearing several layers of loose fitting, lightweight, warm clothing will keep you warmer than one layer of heavy clothing, especially if the outer garments are tightly woven and water repellent.
  • Wear mittens, which are warmer than gloves — fingers together create more warmth than fingers apart.
  • Wear a hat and cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs.

Wear good boots

Canadian researchers recently found that 90 percent of winter boots failed a walking on ice test. The boots that earned the highest marks for being slip-resistant have special outsole materials designed to provide better traction. You can check how your winter boots fared at Rate My Treads.

More from Dr. John Torres: 6 Things to Know About Sudden Heart Attacks

Frostnip

It’s what happens before frostbite. It’s the tingling feeling that hurts — your body’s warning sign that you have to warm up that body part quickly.

When that cold part goes numb, you’ve got frostbite, and that’s a medical emergency. Most people forget about the tips of the ears.

Pay attention to shivering

Shivering is a sign that your body temperature is dropping.

You’re not in medical danger yet, but you’re heading toward hypothermia, or dangerously low body temperature.

If you're still in the cold environment, these are four signs that you’ve crossed into moderate or severe hypothermia:

  • you’re experiencing clumsiness or confusion
  • you feel drowsy
  • your shivering gets worse, or even stops altogether

In that case, get out of the cold immediately and seek a warm place. Get out of wet clothes. Bundle up in warm blankets.

The hat myth!

Wearing a hat is good; it keeps you warm. But you do NOT lose most of your body heat from your head.

The heat you lose from an uncovered head is not different from the heat you’d lose from an uncovered arm.

The myth started after an Army study from the 1950’s found that soldiers who were bundled up except for their head, lost most of their body heat from their head.

Today, more than 60 years later, we know that the opposite is also true — if they had bundled up their head and not their legs, they would have lost most of their body heat through their legs.

That's why it’s important to wear both a hat and long pants when it’s cold. Leave the shorts for spring, guys.

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