- Wintertime is a more challenging season for injuries due to environmental conditions and increased need for preparation.
- Some of the most common injuries during the winter months include: falls on icy surfaces, heart attacks from shoveling snow, and frostbite or hypothermia.
- To stay safe and healthy during the winter months, be sure to prepare your body for any outside activities.
Ice, snow, frigid temperatures—wintertime is packed with potential hazards, making it a prime season for injuries.
“Winter is more challenging from an injury standpoint due to rapidly changing environmental conditions and increased need for preparation,” Craig Bilbrey, MD, medical director at Corewell Health Butterworth Emergency Department, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told Health.
“Weather can change from chillingly cold to temperate over a short period of time. Surfaces can vary from dry, to wet, to packed snow, to ice within a few feet depending on temperature, traffic, and sun exposure,” said Dr. Bilbrey. “This requires a level of diligence and preparation unnecessary at other times of the year.”
Most people are also less active during the winter months, which ramps up the risk of injury when you suddenly do highly active things like shovel snow after a big storm, go for a wintry hike, or pack in a full day of snowboarding.
“When your body is unaccustomed to that activity level, you can get injured,” Mark Conroy, MD, an emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Health.
Here’s what to know about the most common wintertime injuries—and how to prevent or avoid them.
Ice, snow, and slush can quickly create hazardous walking situations, including some you can’t easily see.
“People can break their wrist if they’re trying to break their fall, break a hip, fall and hit their heads, leading to a brain injury—we see pretty much any injury from falls,” Cedric Dark, MD, MPH, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told Health.
While falls can happen even when you’re being cautious, it’s a good idea to be aware of your footwear when you go out in the winter to lower your risk. “Make sure you have good treads and footwear that fits properly,” said Dr. Dark.
Try to pay a little more attention to where you’re walking as well, given that icy conditions aren’t always obvious. “Make sure that, when you’re walking and standing, you have a good grip,” Anita Gorwara, MD, family medicine physician and medical director of urgent care at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Health.
Another tip, according to Dr. Conroy: Spread sand, salt, or kitty litter outside of your home when there are icy conditions to create more stable footing. “I also tell folks to avoid carrying too much in the winter,” Dr. Conroy says. “Sometimes if you’re overpacking yourself, it can impact your balance. Adding ice to the mix can make things more difficult.”
Shoveling snow is an important chore after a big storm, but it can easily lead to a back injury if you lift too heavy a load or turn at an odd angle. “Be aware of your baseline level of fitness and risks,” said Dr. Bilbrey.
It may even be a good move to stretch or warm up a bit before going outside to shovel snow, especially if you’re not used to regularly lifting heavy things.
And when you actually shovel, a good rule is to lift with your legs and avoid bending at your lower back—and don’t overdo it, even if it takes a bit longer. “Lift a weight of snow that feels relatively easy and take your time,” said Dr. Bilbrey.
Simply pushing snow is an option, too. “That can certainly lower your risk of stress to your back,” said Dr. Conroy.
Shoveling snow is difficult, and research has shown that there are cardiovascular health risks to shoveling snow for people with and without diagnosed heart disease.
“Shoveling snow is a very strenuous activity, made even more so by the impact that cold temperatures have on your body, increasing the blood pressure while simultaneously constricting the coronary arteries,” Barry Franklin, PhD, lead author of a 2020 American Heart Association scientific statement on exercise-related acute cardiovascular events, said in a press release. “It really is a ‘perfect storm’ for acute cardiac events.”
Franklin referenced a study that found that participants’ heart rates exceeded the upper limit of aerobic testing—or 85% of maximal heart rate—after just two minutes of shoveling snow. Even pushing an automatic snow blower can raise heart rate and blood pressure quickly.
Baseline physical health matters here: “The impact for snow removal is especially concerning for people who already have cardiovascular risks like a sedentary lifestyle or obesity, being a current or former smoker, having diabetes, high cholesterol or blood pressure, as well people who have had a heart attack or stroke,” said Franklin.
According to Dr. Conroy, if you’re a fairly athletic person in good health, you should be relatively safe shoveling snow—but it’s still a good idea to be aware of the risks, and any warning signs of heart issues.
“If you have any shortness of breath or chest pain while exerting yourself, stop the activity, rest, and get evaluated,” said Dr. Bilbrey. “This is particularly important if you have risk factors for heart disease.”
Frostbite is a bodily injury due to freezing, and typically affects the outermost extremities like the fingers or toes; or the cheeks, ears, nose, or chin. It can lead to permanent damage and, in rare and severe cases, amputation.
Exposed skin is at the highest risk of frostbite, said Dr. Bilbrey; that’s why it’s recommended to wear multiple protective layers that are both windproof and waterproof.
Frostbitten skin appears white or grayish-yellow that may also feel firm or waxy when touched. The affected areas will also feel numb.
Although medical care is the best route to take in cases of frostbite, sometimes immediate attentions isn’t available. In those cases, it’s important to find warmth as soon as possible, and use body heat or warm—not hot—water to slowly but steadily warm up extremities. Using too much heat on frostbitten body parts may result in burns.
Hypothermia is a dangerously low body temperature that’s caused by prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures.
When you’re exposed to cold temperatures, your body starts to lose heat faster than it produces heat, lowering your body temperature in the process. While you’re at the greatest risk of hypothermia in very cold temperatures, it’s still possible to develop the condition even at temperatures above 40 degrees.
To keep your body temperature stable, even when you’re outside, it’s important to dress for the weather. That may mean wearing multiple layers, ideally ones that are waterproof.
“The cold, wet weather increases risk for hypothermia, [so] an outer layer that is waterproof or repellent is a must,” said Dr. Bilbrey. He added that it’s important not to spent more time than absolutely necessary outside when it’s cold—and if you do have to be outside for a long period of time, to “dress and prepare” accordingly.