‘Lift with your knees’ and other health tips

Posted: Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Winter in Alaska offers as many outdoor activities as your imagination is willing to fathom. But no matter how many activities wait outside, they won’t do you any good if you spend the winter cowering inside.

Colds, flu, hypothermia, frostbite and other winter hazards can make a person want to curl up in bed and hibernate for the winter.

But with a few simple precautionary measures and a little extra loving attention to your overall health you can safely enjoy Alaska’s chilliest season.

One of the most dangerous winter ills Alaskans need to keep in mind when preparing for recreation outdoors is hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops to 95 degrees or lower, and becomes life threatening when the body’s temperature drops to 90 degrees or lower.

As the body’s temperature drops it tries to maintain warmth by tightening muscles and shivering, but only until the body’s temperature drops to about 90 degrees, when hypothermia becomes particularly dangerous.

Other signs that someone is suffering from hypothermia include weak pulse, slow shallow breathing and forgetfulness.

Hypothermia can be avoided by following common sense; dress appropriately for the weather. Hats, gloves and plenty of warm layers to insulate the body are a must when temperatures become bitterly cold.

Even if temperatures are not that cold when you leave the house, it’s a good idea to take extra clothing with you in case temperatures drop while you are away from home.

Treating a victim of hypothermia, however, can be a little less intuitive.

Although warm water transfers heat quickly, quick isn’t necessarily what you want when treating hypothermia. A quick transition from cold to warm can send a hypothermia victim into shock, therefore warm baths and showers should be avoided.

In general, hypothermia should be treated at a hospital rather than at home. But if a visit to the hospital is impossible, the following tips should be used to warm the victim.

First, wrap the victim in a blanket to insulate the heat they already have. As outside sources of heat, offer the victim a heating pad or hot water bottle to place against their stomach.

Similarly, faster is not necessarily better for treating a second winter ailment — frostbite. Victims of frostbite will find the affected area is numb rather than painful and will become whitish and stiff.

As with hypothermia, frostbite should be treated with gradual warming using blankets or, if the affected area of the body is located on an extremity, by placing the affected area against a warm body part, such as an armpit.

Affected areas should not be rubbed, since this can damage tissue.

Ailments less directly linked to winter weather, but still a rising concern as temperatures drop, are colds and flus. With illnesses, prevention is key. Good nutrition, plenty of sleep and exercise help keep the body healthy and, therefore, help it resist bacterial and viral infections.

Flu shots also play an important role in helping the body resist infections, particularly for the elderly, since people tend to become more vulnerable to infections as they become older.

External factors also can play a role in avoiding infections, like not allowing the humidity in a home to drop in the winter. Dry air dries up mucus membranes and leads to cracking in breathing passages. The resulting lesions offer bacteria and viruses a place to enter your bloodstream and make you sick.

Finally, winter ills can occur not only while recreating outside, but also when working outside. When done improperly, shoveling can strain the back, particularly the lower spine.

By following a few helpful tips, however, shovelers can reduce the risk of back injury while clearing driveways or walkways of snow.

First, lighten your load. When it snows, get out and shovel right away rather than waiting for the snow to settle, compact and become heavy. You can also lighten your load by using a plastic shovel rather than a metal one.

When possible, push the snow with your shovel rather than lifting it, and when you do have to lift, use your legs rather than your back.

Lastly, a shovel with a curved handle rather than a straight handle will also lower back injury risks by allowing you to stand straighter while shoveling.

Patrice Kohl can be reached at patrice.kohl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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