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5 ways to keep your family safe this winter

OHSU experts offer tips to prevent seasonal injury
mom and daughter, wearing ski helmet and snowsuits
Experts recommend wearing a properly fitted snow-sport helmet when skiing, snowboarding, skating or sledding. (Getty Images)

Winter is officially here. Soon the mountains will be white with snow, gatherings with friends and family will fill the calendar, and delicious treats will be found around every corner.

However, as the temperatures drop during this magical time of year, the need to increase safety measures is often on the rise.

Ben Hoffman, M.D.
Ben Hoffman, M.D.

Ben Hoffman, M.D., professor of pediatrics and medical director of the OHSU Doernbecher Tom Sargent Safety Center, and Rob Hendrickson, M.D., professor of emergency medicine and medical director of the Oregon Poison Center at OHSU offer the following tips to ensure that safety and wellness don’t “slip” your mind this season:

Outdoor activities? Be smart, not extreme

While winter sports such as skiing or ice skating can be a fun and exciting way to experience the season, they can also pose great danger.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, emergency departments treat approximately 20,000 patients in the United States each year due to sledding accidents. Injuries can range from bumps and scrapes, to broken bones or traumatic brain injury.

Hoffman recommends that children wear a properly fitted snow-sport helmet when skiing, snowboarding, skating or sledding, and avoid dimly lit areas as well as steep, rocky inclines.

Most importantly, Hoffman says, no one should ever ride on a sled, inner tube or other winter equipment pulled behind a motorized vehicle: “High speeds can cause riders to lose control or be pulled into areas that may not be visible to the driver. We have seen many horrible crashes and collisions that are completely preventable.”

Stop hypothermia, frostbite before it starts

“In addition to losing heat from their skin faster than adults, children may not be aware of the symptoms of hypothermia and instead, opt to carry on with the fun of winter activity,” Hoffman says. “This puts them at a greater risk of contracting a weather-related injury such as frostbite.”

To avoid health impacts from the elements, children should dress in warm, layered and loose-fitting clothing such as thermal underwear, cotton socks, heavy sweaters and tightly woven, moisture-resistant coats and boots. Extra clothing should be packed for wintery excursions away from home, as damp apparel can increase heat loss.

Hoffman also urges parents and caregivers to become familiar with the signs and symptoms of hypothermia, frostbite and frostnip to help limit long-term impact:

  • Hypothermia results when the body loses heat faster than it is produced, due to exposure to cold temperatures or water. Symptoms include shivering, low energy and memory loss. If a person’s temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, seek medical attention immediately.
  • Frostbite is caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues and may result in permanent damage. Early signs of frostbite consist of waxy, white and hard skin that feels numb and has a persistent burning sensation. Severe warning signs include blue, mottled or splotchy skin. Immediate medical attention should be sought to treat cases of frostbite.
  • Frostnip occurs when skin is exposed to extreme cold for extended periods of time. It is usually temporary, and may be treated by traditional first aid measures or a warm bath.
asian dad buckling an infant into a car seat
Bulky winterwear– including coats, vests and snowsuits – should be removed before buckling children into carseats. (Getty Images)

Remove winter coats before buckling kids into car safety seats

It's logical to assume that bundling a child in a large coat for a snowy car ride would help to keep them warm. However, when using a child safety seat, bulky winterwear– including coats, vests and snowsuits – can put kids at risk for injuries.

“In a motor vehicle accident, the padding found in this clothing creates space between the child and the harness that flattens out from the force of the crash,” Hoffman says. “This means that the child will slam into the straps with a fair amount of force. We want the harness to be snug over the child’s shoulders and chest, so that it hugs the child in a crash.”

In lieu of puffy coats, consider offering children a warm blanket draped over car seat harness straps. Removeable car seats may also be stored inside the home when not in use to ensure the fabric seat inserts remain at a comfortable temperature ahead of the next road trip.

Using a back-up heating source? Reduce the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning

Seasonal power outages due to cold temperatures and winter storms often lead people to seek alternative heating sources for their home.

“Wood fires, gas-powered heating systems, and oil, kerosene or coal-burning appliances are all good options for warmth, but they can also increase the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning,” says Hendrickson.

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is an odorless, tasteless gas produced whenever fossil fuel is burned. The only safe way to detect it is with a CO alarm. Symptoms of poisoning including headache, dizziness, vomiting or confusion. Inhalation of excessive amounts of CO can result in death.

To limit the risks of CO, Hendrickson recommends installing a battery-operated detector on every level of a home. Devices should be checked regularly to ensure proper function. Fireplaces, home heating systems and water heaters should also be inspected and serviced by a qualified technician annually, and portable, gas-operated generators should only be used outside at least 25 feet away from windows, doors or vents.

Add a dash of care to wintertime food and drink

From cookies and hot cocoa, to roast turkey, latkes and hearty soups or stews, cuisine plays a starring role during the winter months.

“Kids have curious minds and busy hands,” says Hoffman. “Be sure that hot foods and beverages as well as small hard candies, popcorn and nuts are placed away from the edges of countertops or tables. This will impede potential choking or burn hazards that could not only hamper festive celebrations, but cause great danger to youngsters.”

Products such as medications, alcohol, tobacco or other vaping products can easily be mistaken for holiday treats and should also remain out of reach of children and adolescents. Overnight guests should consider safely storing prescriptions out of sight of inquisitive children.

When preparing a feast for wintertime gatherings, Hendrickson reminds hosts to follow food safety guidelines in order to avoid illness from bacteria readily present in raw fruits, vegetables and meats.

“The danger zone for rapid bacteria growth – and increased risk of food poisoning -- is between 40- and 140-degrees Fahrenheit,” he says. “Foods that require heating or refrigeration should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. This timeline is important to factor into meal clean up, and transportation from one location to another.”

If a friend of family member exhibits symptoms of food poisoning such as nausea or vomiting or you suspect an individual has experienced a toxic exposure, immediately contact your primary care provider or the Oregon Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.


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