Winter's coming: Tips to stay warm this season

1 June, 2018

People with disabilities, and particularly those with a spinal cord injury (SCI), are vulnerable to the extremes of weather in Australia, whether in winter or summer. These extremes can be a real danger since the body has a reduced ability to regulate temperature. As the weather cools down, we have put together some tips and tricks for you to keep in mind to stay warm and safe this winter.

Body temperature
People with a spinal cord injury often struggle to regulate their body temperature. It is important to adopt specific strategies and be aware of certain situations to keep warm during the colder months. It is recommended that people with a SCI don’t use heat packs or hot water bottles (and if they do, do so with caution) as many may not feel the extreme heat. Hot water bottles can also leak and result in burns that a person may not necessary feel.

When the body gets cold, its response is to shiver to try and warm up. Shivering does not typically occur below the level of injury in people with SCI. Therefore, the body cannot compensate for cold temperatures and warm up, which can lead to hypothermia (abnormally low body temperature) which is potentially dangerous. It’s always helpful to use extra blankets and to keep your hands and feet as warm as possible. If the cold weather is more extreme, you can also request a family member to lie as close to you as possible under blankets, as this will allow body heat to transfer to the person with the SCI.

Keep your room/surroundings cosy and warm with the use of space heaters or fireplaces. Do not venture out in the cold unless you absolutely need to. Your body can get critically cold long before you will realise. Since wheelchairs are made of metal and vinyl, they become very cold in cooler weather, and instead of containing your body heat, will adjust to the external temperature, leaving you sitting on a very cold surface.

"Dress in layers if you go out and about in winter"

Dressing in layers is a useful trick that people with SCI can use to stay warm; especially if you like to get out and about during winter. The layers trap in the heat, and you can add or remove layers depending on the temperature around you. Another useful tip is to invest in winter-friendly clothing and accessories. Choose your fabrics with care, as materials like wool and fleece are better than cotton; cotton does not insulate well and if wet, takes longer to dry in the cold. Wheelchair users’ hands also often become desensitised over time. It is always a good idea to keep your hands warm and dry with waterproof gloves. Remember to dress appropriately for the weather, even if it’s just a short dash from your car into your home or building. Putting blankets on your lap or wearing a coat on backwards can help keep you warm without compromising your ability to manoeuvre your chair. However, you also must remember to also cover your back - not just the front.

"use fireplaces and space heaters to keep your room cosy and warm"

The human body uses more water in winter than summer because it takes more energy to keep warm, so it is incredibly important to stay hydrated. Dehydration can make you feel chronically cold, or overheated. As much as possible, soft drinks, coffee and caffeinated teas should be avoided, as the caffeine present in these drinks has a dehydrating effect on your body. So drink plenty of water instead!

Winter air is not only cold, but also very dry and can cause the skin to become parched. One of the first signs of dehydration is dry and itchy skin, which can worsen quickly and lead to cracking and the beginning of skin breakdown. Applying a light moisturiser to your hands can help keep the skin stay hydrated and supple, and prevent cracking and discomfort. 

People with a SCI should also pay special attention to the parts of their body that get sore due to extended sitting or lying in bed, and perform regular pressure relief exercises in order to keep sores, blisters, and ulcers at bay. Frostbite is a condition to be wary of in the winter months. Frostbitten skin is cold to the touch, may feel numb and appear greyish-yellow. If you think you have developed frostbite, move to a warm area and seek medical attention immediately.

Physical Activity
Exercise not only keeps you active, strong, and healthy, but helps you stay engaged, alert and occupied. Colder temperatures cause muscles to tighten up, and exercise helps to reduce spasms, as well as getting blood flowing to keep lower limbs warm. Exercise also helps combats anxiety and depression, which are often associated with winter. You could try a range of motion exercises daily to maintain bodily strength. Alternately, you can ask your healthcare provider or GP to prescribe an exercise program for you, keeping your ability, fitness levels and goals in mind.

Always remember to be aware of the weather forecasts for your area. If you decide to venture outside on a cold day, remember to dress warmly in layers and keep a bottle of water handy for hydration. Winter is a challenging time for those with a SCI, but with a little preparation and vigilance, you can make it exciting!

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