Winter safety outdoors

Slips and falls: No matter how carefully we walk, it's hard to go an entire winter without at least one "whoops!" A slip-and-slide on an icy patch is graceless at best. Maybe we fall on our bums. Or worse, we really hurt ourselves. Do your best to prevent pratfalls and injuries:

  • Keep walkways and stairs cleared of snow and ice. This protects not just you and your family but also postal carriers and other people making deliveries in your neighbourhood.
  • Fortify your footing. Opt for rubber-soled shoes or boots. You can also buy anti-slip cleats that attach to your shoes or boots (think of them as snow tires for your feet!).
  • Lighten your load. Carry fewer bags and packages on slippery days, since excess baggage can throw off your balance and make it tougher to regain your balance once you lose it.
  • Wear gloves. How does this help you not slip and fall? When you wear gloves or mittens to keep your hands warm, you're less likely to shove your hands in your pockets. You need your arms and hands free to help you recover your balance if you start to slip or slide.
  • Slow down! Better to get to your destination late than never, after all.

Cold feet and hands: When the temperature drops, our bodies kick into survival mode, constricting our blood vessels to conserve heat and preserve our body temperature. That means it takes longer for warming circulation to reach the tips of our toes and the ends of our fingers. To keep the blood flowing to those extremities:

  • Loosen your boots. It seems like a good way to fight off the cold – wrapping your feet up in snug wool socks and tucking them all cozy and tightly into your boots. But wrap your toes up too tightly, and you risk constricting blood flow to your feet and making them feel even colder. Instead, opt for thinner wool or polypropylene socks and consider going up a shoe size for your winter footwear.
  • Waterproof your extremities. Choose boots, socks, gloves, and mittens that will keep moisture out while allowing perspiration to escape. Look for gloves with gathering at the wrist and socks with light binding around the band. If your boots and shoes are not already water-tight, you can weatherproof them yourself using a spray protectant or a beeswax product. Or check with a shoe repair store to be sure you do it correctly.
  • Select the right gloves for the job. Take public transit in the winter? Gloves with a "convertible" top can make it easier to rifle through the change in your pocket for your transit token. These days, you can also find gloves with small plastic dots on the fingertips – perfect for switching songs on your MP3 player or dialing your cell phone! But you'll need warmer gloves with some grip to them if you have to shovel your sidewalk or scrape the ice off of your windshield. Pull rubber cleaning gloves over the top of your usual gloves for traction if you're in a pinch. To combat extreme cold, slip disposable hand warmers into your gloves. These packets, made with various compounds including iron, charcoal, salt, and water, take advantage of the natural reaction between those elements to create long-lasting, mellow warmth.
  • Select the right socks for the job. While cotton socks make sense in the summer, in cold weather they can be moisture traps that provide no warmth from insulation. Since it's thicker and more insulated, wool stays warmer. Even though wool absorbs moisture, it dries up quickly. Wool socks may not be too sexy, but they'll protect your tootsies.

Note: Cold hands and feet are common in wintertime, but some people may have a condition called Raynaud's disease, where they get chilled extremities at the slightest drop of temperature or at other unexpected times.

Windburn: Cold, windy air can be like a sandblaster to your skin. When the wind burns, skin can become red and irritated. The chafing heat of windburn can feel similar to sunburn. The best way to prevent windburn is to keep the wind from touching your skin:

  • Face the cold. Wrap a scarf around the bottom half of your face or go ninja-style in a balaclava – a full-face ski mask.
  • Put on a coat...of petroleum jelly? Smooth a layer of moisturizer or petroleum jelly onto your cheeks, nose, and lips to seal in skin's moisture and prevent drying out.
  • Muffle your ears. The tender tops of our ears can be one of those forgotten skin spots left open and vulnerable to the elements. Not so when you wear a hood, hat, headband, or ear muffs!
  • Nuzzle your neck. Seize the opportunity to wear snuggly scarves or cute, cozy "cowls" and neck warmers (also known as gaiters).

Soothe windburn symptoms like you might with sunburn: acetaminophen or anti-inflammatory medications for pain, switching to milder cleansers, and keeping skin moisturized.

Winter safety indoors

Electric blankets: A blanket is a symbol of cozy warmth. Take it up a notch by adding electricity, and you have quick heat to warm you through the coldest of winter nights. Most electric blankets are safe, but follow directions and warnings carefully and pay attention to details about care, washing, and precautions for certain individuals. People with nerve damage may experience burns because they can't sense when a blanket or heating pad has become too hot. To prevent injury, only use electric blankets or heating pads to initially warm your bed. Then remove them before you tuck in for the night. Steer clear of secondhand electric blankets – previous owners may have discarded them because they functioned poorly or became unsafe. Although it seems like common sense, it bears repeating: never use a hot water bottle with an electric blanket.

Humidifiers: Vaporizers and humidifiers moisten the dry air of many homes each winter. These whirring water machines help to prevent dry skin, scratchy throats, congestion, and nosebleeds. They also soothe symptoms of colds and the flu. But since humidifiers and vaporizers mix electricity and water, use them with care and caution. Steam humidifiers boil away any possible mould or bacteria from the water, but the heat created can pose a burn risk. A cool-mist humidifier relies on an agitating motor to create moisture. Without the boiling heat, you need to diligently maintain and clean these humidifiers to prevent buildup of mould and bacteria. Steam humidifiers also need to be drained and cleaned to prevent standing water from breeding bacteria.

Fires and smoke: Ahhh, the comforts and romance of a roaring fire. A wood-burning fire crackles, sizzles, and warms a room right up. One not-so-cozy or romantic side effect of wood burning is that the smoke can emit over 100 pollutants into your home! Wood smoke can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat; trigger headaches, nausea, and dizziness; and cause flare-ups of respiratory conditions like asthma. If you can't put out your love for wood fires, be safe about it. Be sure your fireplace or wood stove meets the emissions standards of the Canadian Standards Association. Allow proper ventilation and burn smaller pieces of wood. Only keep enough wood indoors to burn for the day. Otherwise, store wood outside in a place where it will stay dry. To choose wood, bang two logs together. If it makes a loud, hollow crack, it's good. A dull thud means wood is wet.

Carbon monoxide in the home: More accidental carbon monoxide poisonings happen during the winter months because of increased use of furnaces, fireplaces, and other heating units. Risk runs high during power outages since people sometimes turn to alternative heat sources that produce high levels of carbon monoxide. If you haven't already, install a carbon monoxide detector in your home. Check space heaters and furnaces to be sure they're out of reach of children, babies, pets, and areas where someone might accidentally bump into them. And never leave a car running inside of a garage – even if the door is open.

Four healthy habits you shouldn't let slide in the winter

Sip plenty of water: You probably drink plenty of water when the weather is hot, but what about when the weather changes? Though colder temps may mean you sweat less, your body still needs adequate hydration to stay healthy and to keep your skin from becoming too dry. Hot cocoa, teas, and other cozy beverages will provide some of your daily water needs, but you'll still want to have a bottle or glass handy.

Wear sunscreen: It's another habit that simply seems more natural in June than January. Thing is, the sun on a bright winter's day can be just as damaging to your skin. Not to mention all of the light that reflects off of the ice and snow. Since skin tends to dry in the winter, wear a daily moisturizer containing a minimum of SPF 15.

Don't forget your sunglasses: You'd wear sunglasses while strolling on a sunny beach, right? So why not when you're walking in a winter whiteout? Snow actually reflects much more UV light than dry sand. And the harm those rays can do to our eyes remains the same no matter what the temperature. So don't pack away those sunglasses with your swimsuits and beach towels!

Get your daily dose of vitamin D: Sunshine wanes in the winter, as the days grow shorter and shorter and we head into hibernation mode. Less time with the sun on our skin deprives of us of one of the best, most natural sources of vitamin D (10 minutes in the sun is thought to provide enough to meet your daily needs). Vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium to maintain healthy bones. Find vitamin D in foods like eggs and milk, and fatty fish like salmon. Or you can take a supplement containing 600 IU (international units) to 1000 IU of vitamin D if you are under 70, or 800 IU to 1000 IU if you are over 70. Ask your doctor or pharmacist what strength supplement you'll need.