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Snow Safety: How to Protect Yourself in Cold Winter Weather

Jan 28, 2022 By Thomas Nguyen, MD
Man wearing scarf outside covered in snow

With temperatures dropping below freezing across the country, we know there are lots of questions about how to stay safe, healthy, and most importantly, warm this time of year. Here are our top tips for protecting yourself and your loved ones when braving the cold:

When is it safe to be outside?

In general, if the wind chill is 32 degrees and above, it’s safe to be outside. In temperatures 13 degrees to 31 degrees, indoor breaks should happen every 20-30 minutes. For wind chills of 13 degrees and below, you should move activities indoors and out of the cold as frostbite can set in very quickly. Check out our winter workout guide for some indoor alternatives!

If I have to go outside, how many layers should I be wearing?

The main goal is to keep your skin and layers warm and dry when dressing for freezing temperatures. The first layer should be made of a synthetic material such as polyester, which wicks away moisture. The next layer should be an insulating material such as wool and fleece which are good insulators and hold in more body heat than cotton. The top layer should be windproof and waterproof.

While you might want to cozy up to a fire or heater right before you head out into the bone-chilling temperatures, you should be a little chilly before you get moving. If you’re warm while dressing in these layers, you will quickly begin sweating once you start moving and risk saturating your layers. So, if you start to feel a bit too warm, try to take a layer off before you start sweating. If it starts to snow or rain, layer back up with the waterproof shell before you lose all your valuable body heat. Wearing loose, light layers helps trap warm air.

Am I more likely to get sick in cold weather?

The bottom line is, yes. The cold, dry air dries out your nasal and oral mucous membranes causing them to crack, providing more entry ways for viruses to invade your body. When the weather is chillier, we are also more likely to get together with friends indoors to stay warm, which further raises the risk of exposure to germs and viruses

Asthma patients are more susceptible to flare-ups during the winter months for the same reason. Dry, cold air triggers an overactive inflammatory lung response that can worsen the condition. If you have asthma, try wearing a buff around your nose and mouth to warm up the air you breathe in and keep your face warm. If your breathing feels labored during the winter months, you should meet with your primary care provider to go over the best next steps.

Do temperature changes affect my health?

Yes, the changes in temperature and humidity can have effects on our mucous membranes and the airways of those with asthma which can lead to illness. Also, the more energy and resources your body uses to stay warm, the less energy it has to support the immune system when responding to infections.

How can I protect myself from frostbite?

If the wind chills measure at 13 degrees or lower, you are at a high risk of frostbite, and it’s better to move inside the house. It’s also important to protect your feet and toes to avoid frostbite.Start by wearing two pairs of socks. The first pair —next to your skin — should be made of moisture-wicking fabric. Place a pair of wool or wool-blend socks on top of those. Your boots should also provide adequate insulation, be waterproof, and cover your ankles.

Things that increase your risk for frostbite:

  • Clothing that is too tight
  • Wet clothing
  • Dehydration

The first signs of frostbite include skin redness and a stinging, burning, throbbing or prickling sensation followed by numbness. If this occurs, head indoors immediately and try to gradually bring feeling back into the affected area through gentle rewarming. Avoid vigorous rubbing of frostbitten skin or submerging your hands or feet directly into hot water; use warm water or a warm washcloth instead. If you do not feel sensation returning to your body, or if the skin begins to turn gray, go to an emergency room immediately.

Are there any injuries or illnesses that happen more frequently during snow storms?

The ground can be slick during snow storms which can lead to falls, so it’s imperative to be mindful of your surroundings and avoid rushing. When going outside, first check to see if the ground is slippery and then use a slower and wider gait when walking to better protect against falls.

Sun exposure and dehydration are also common concerns during snowy months. The snow provides a reflective surface that results in UV exposure from the sky as well as the ground so don’t forget your sunglasses and sunscreen. Dehydration is also prevalent in the winter time mostly due to the fact that you don’t often sweat as an indicator that you are losing fluids. We are less likely to be aware of dehydration until we are already experiencing it because we often don’t associate it with cold weather. Ensure you are drinking plenty of water throughout the day.

If you have any questions about staying safe in freezing temperatures or think you might be experiencing symptoms associated with frostbite or dehydration, you can easily book an on-demand, 24/7 Video Chat — right from your phone - to connect with a primary care provider about your concerns.

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Thomas Nguyen, MD, One Medical Provider
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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.