Cold-Weather-Ready: How to Enjoy the Outdoors Safely This Winter

A primary care physician shares tips on how to stay warm, recognize signs of trouble, and understand what to avoid in chilly temperatures.

It’s already been a long winter, with snow and extreme weather hitting many parts of the country. But taking proper cold-weather safety precautions is as important as ever, as many Americans are doing more activities outdoors due to the pandemic.

As we continue to adjust to life in a pandemic winter, people should enjoy being outside, as long as they gear up and can recognize signs of cold-weather injuries. “If you’re properly clothed and well covered, it’s safe to be out in the cold for short periods,” says Dr. Alexandra Dow, an internal medicine physician at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Westchester.

Dr. Dow spoke with Health Matters and shared tips on how to stay warm and safe while enjoying outdoor activities in wintry weather.

1. Bundle up in lightweight, waterproof layers.

The first thing you should do before venturing out is to dress in the appropriate clothing for the temperature outside. In frosty weather, that means wearing lightweight layers, which will keep you well insulated but also give you an easy way to adjust for comfort if you get too warm.

Make sure you wear all the winter accessories, too: a hat, a scarf, an extra layer of socks, and gloves (or, ideally, mittens, which can keep your hands a bit warmer). “Every body part needs to stay warm,” says Dr. Dow. “You don’t want things exposed.”

2. If dining outdoors, move around and limit your alcohol.

Instead of sitting the entire time over a long meal outside, get up every so often, which will help you warm up, advises Dr. Dow. She also recommends not drinking too much alcohol. Alcohol can give you a false sense of warmth as blood flows to the skin — but that also means blood is flowing away from your internal organs, thus causing a sharp decline in your core body temperature and increasing your risk of hypothermia if you stay out for too long.

How to Recognize Frostbite

Frostbite: An injury that occurs when your skin and underlying tissues freeze. The body parts that are most prone to frostbite are extremities such as your nose, ears, chin, fingers and toes.

Signs that a body part or skin is experiencing frostbite:

• It’s cold
• Red
• Numb
• Hard
• Pale

What to do: One of the most common ways of rewarming is skin-to-skin contact. “For instance, if it’s the fingers, stick your fingers and hands into your armpits,” says Dr. Dow. And avoid running it under hot water or massaging the area, because you can actually cause additional damage.

3. Beware of hazardous conditions.

Beyond the dangers that cold temperatures could pose, don’t forget about the potential for other types of weather-induced injuries, especially if you are going on walks or a hike. “You have to look up and make sure that the branches aren’t going to come down because of the weight of the snow,” says Dr. Dow. “And you need to know where you’re walking, because there could be water that is completely iced over and snowed over and you’re not going to know it’s there.”

4. Use extra caution if you have heart or lung conditions.

Cold weather can directly impact the cardiovascular system. “The cold weather itself makes blood vessels on the outside contract and narrow a little bit because your body’s trying to protect itself and trying to keep the heat in,” explains Dr. Dow. “Because the blood vessels are narrower, the heart has to work harder to get the blood out, which can increase your blood pressure and heart rate. All of that is very stressful on the heart.”

Anyone who’s not used to that kind of stress should avoid doing physically challenging tasks in cold weather such as shoveling heavy snow. “You can go slowly, but if you have a choice, hire a high school kid to do it,” she says.

If you suffer from asthma or other respiratory conditions, be sure to cover your mouth with a heavy scarf in addition to your mask, “so that cold air doesn’t rush right into the lungs,” says Dr. Dow. “Lungs can actually spasm because there’s such a big difference in temperature. That can cause wheezing and other asthmatic symptoms.”

How to Recognize Hypothermia

Hypothermia: A serious condition in which your body temperature becomes so low that it starts to affect your brain.

Signs that a person is experiencing hypothermia:

• Shivering
• Drowsiness
• Fatigue
• Confusion
• Disorientation and loss of coordination

What to do: “Get the affected person into a warmer area and seek medical attention,” says Dr. Dow.

5. Prep your kids for outdoor play.

If your children are going to be playing in the snow, make sure their outermost layers are waterproof, says Dr. Dow. If they don’t have a waterproof snowsuit and snow boots, it’s best that they don’t stay out for too long, because wet clothing can make them more susceptible to the cold and also increase the risk of getting frostbite. Keep an eye out for ruddy complexions as a sign it’s time to warm up, she says.

Snow makes for some fun playtime for kids, but help them set limits. Children probably won’t know that they’re getting too cold if they’re preoccupied and having a good time, so “you have to be the one to say enough is enough,” says Dr. Dow.

Alexandra M. Dow, M.D. is a board certified internal medicine physician and practices at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Westchester. She specializes in preventive medicine and focuses on promoting health and wellness practices, preventive diseases and managing the health of the community. Dr. Dow is a dedicated primary care physician. She has a wide range of experience in preventive health, travel medicine, urgent care and emergency care services in various medical settings.