Snow Shoveling May Put Hearts at Risk

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Hypothermia

Dr. Richard Bradley, associate professor of emergency medicine and chief of EMS and disaster medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, reiterated the importance of keeping warm during the plummeting temperatures.

"The onset of hypothermia can be very difficult to detect," said Bradley. "We lose a lot of people every year from it, because people often don't realize they're becoming hypothermic."

Bradley said people often chalk up hypothermia symptoms to feeling sleepy or fatigued.

"But as the hypothermia worsens, people realize even less that they're getting colder," said Bradley. "We see this a lot in people who are alone and don't have anyone to say, 'Hey, you don't look so good.'"

Dr. Hersch Leon Pachter, chairman of the department of surgery at New York University School of Medicine, said hypothermic patients who come into the emergency room are often homeless.

"A lot of people off the street come in with hypothermia," said Pachter. "They're sleeping outside and being exposed to the elements."

But for all those who willingly brave the elements for a dose of winter activity, frostbite can put a damper on a winter day outdoors.

Frostbite Dangers

"At this time of year, especially when you're having fun, it's possible to get frostbite, which is actually the freezing of parts of the body," said Bradley. "Digits begin to lose sensation and turn white or waxy, and the worst thing you can do is warm them and freeze them again."

This tidbit could surprise even the most avid of winter athletes.

Bradley said that warming a frostbitten area, then subjecting it to the freezing cold again can cause ice crystals in the tissue, which only multiplies the damage done to the frostbitten skin.

Bradley said that if people develop signs of frostbite while hiking or hunting, they should wait to rewarm the area until safely out of elements.

"The rewarming process can be quite painful." said Bradley, "So, if you have signs of frostbite, it's a good idea to go to the ER and have it treated in a controlled setting."

While on the Road, Leave the Moxy at Home

And, while it's one thing to be walking around in the winter wonderland, it's a whole different animal to be driving. If you're on the road, Pachter said it's particularly important not to become a victim of self-deception. Be cautious, no matter what kind of vehicle you're driving.

"You're not superman because you're in a souped-up SUV," said Pachter. "Some people have a lot of moxy when driving those SUVs. They think they can get in their four-wheel-drive car and go 60 miles an hour."

When really, Pachter said, it's that reckless driving that causes visits to the emergency room.

Dr. David Ross, an emergency medical physician in Colorado Springs, Colo., said that it's important to prepare the car with warm clothing and supplies so that, if the car does break down in the cold, the driver and passengers are prepared.

"Have great respect for the danger of blizzard snow conditions," said Ross. "Make sure to have emergency weather gear available for all occupants of the vehicle. This would include a heavy coat, sweater or fleece, hat, gloves, heavy socks and some sort of snow boots, as well as a working cell phone."

And doctors agreed that, when the weather is snowing on the parade, it's best to stay home. Traveling or shoveling the walkway simply is not worth the risk.

"Stay home," said Pachter. "And use a lot of commonsense."

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