On Your Health

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Preparing for Emergencies: Extreme Winter Weather

We all wish for a lovely winter wonderland, but sometimes that winter weather can be more of a nightmare. Winter storms, ice, snow and extreme cold are all things we Oklahomans have experienced deep in our bones, along with other unpleasant side effects like a higher risk for car accidents, loss of power, and the potential for frostbite, carbon monoxide poisoning and more. Young children, the elderly and those with health problems face even greater risk during these extreme weather events, so it pays to prepare ahead.

When bad winter weather strikes

Your family needs an advance plan to deal with severe winter weather. According to ready.gov (a national public service campaign to help Americans prepare for emergencies) you should always know your area’s risk for winter storms. If you’re facing a storm that lasts for a few days, you should be ready for the possible loss of heat, power and communications.

Here are a few tips to prepare NOW for future winter threats

  • Make sure your home is up-to-date on insulation, caulking and weather stripping.
  • Test your carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarms, as the risk for fire and carbon monoxide poisoning rises dramatically in the winter.
  • Invest in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio that can keep you informed when the power goes out. (Wirecutter has good recommendations for weather radios).

If you know a storm is coming

  • Charge portable chargers for electronics like smartphones and tablets.
  • Stock up on extra batteries for radios and flashlights.
  • Purchase non-perishable items such as canned food, crackers and peanut butter.
  • Be sure to work with your physician to make sure you have enough of your essential medications to last a few days.
  • Have a plan to check on elderly family members or neighbors who may be at risk during extreme cold.

Create an emergency kit for your car and home

It is simple to assemble a winter emergency kit and store it away somewhere handy like a closet or cabinet weeks before winter even arrives. If you’re trapped inside your home without power when it’s freezing outside, you will appreciate already having your kit put together and easily accessible.

Make sure it has layers of warm clothing, hats and gloves for each family member, blankets, a case of bottled water, non-perishable food, a first aid kit, and extra flashlights and batteries.

For your car, always keep a kit in the trunk that includes blankets, extra jackets and warm clothes, a flashlight and batteries, jumper cables, sand for slick spots, non-perishable snacks, bottled water, a first aid kit and emergency reflective cones and flares.

How to survive being snowed in

You might think boredom will be your biggest inconvenience when snowed in, but other, more serious concerns should be considered.

  • If you are using a space heater, caution children not to stand too close, as their clothing could catch fire.
  • Be sure that all combustible material is at least three inches away in all directions from the space heater.
  • Adjust the flame of the gas space heater to blue to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide build-up.
  • Make sure you home is vented properly to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Generators and grills should be kept outdoors and away from windows.
  • Never use a stovetop or the oven to heat the home.

Read this On Your Health article to learn more about winter fire dangers.

Avoid winter injuries

If you’re snowed in during a heavy winter storm, avoid going outside if possible. The risk of a heart attack from overexertion when shoveling snow or scraping ice goes up, especially for those who may have heart issues.

If you must go outside, learn the signs of frostbite. Frostbite usually results in numbness or pain, white skin or waxy skin and most often affects the nose, ears, fingers, toes, cheeks and chin. If a family member shows these signs do the following:

  • Get them into a warm room as soon as possible.
  • Remove any wet clothing.
  • Cover the person in warm blankets.
  • Immerse the areas affected by frostbite into warm (not hot) water until normal skin color returns.
  • Do not soak the affected area too long (no more than 30 minutes).
  • Warm the affected area using body heat.
  • Do not rub or massage the affected area as this can cause further damage.
  • Do not use anything hot (such as a heating pad, stove, or furnace) to warm the affected area, as these areas are numb and may burn easily due to a lack of sensation.
  • The frostbitten area should be gently washed, dried, and wrapped in sterile bandages and kept clean to avoid infection.

Hypothermia is also a danger. Hypothermia is an abnormally low body temperature brought on by staying in cold temperatures for a long period of time. This lowered body temperature affects the brain, and a person's ability to think clearly or move well. Severe hypothermia can also cause an irregular heartbeat leading to heart failure and death.

While hypothermia happens most often in very cold temperatures, even cool temperatures (above 40 degrees Fahrenheit) can be dangerous to a person who has become chilled from rain, sweat, or being in cold water for an extended period. Signs of hypothermia include uncontrolled shivering, confusion, memory loss, exhaustion, slurred speech and drowsiness.

Body temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit should be considered an emergency and requires immediate treatment. While you wait for emergency personnel, warm areas like the chest, neck, head and groin first and wrap the person in warm blankets.

As an Oklahoman, it is wise to be prepared for seasonal storms and emergency situations that can happen at a moment’s notice. This is part one of a new INTEGRIS blog series on how to prepare for emergency situations. Check back soon for part two.

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