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Baby, it’s cold outside! Here are 6 tips for staying safe in sub-zero temperatures

A polar vortex is bringing extreme cold temperatures to the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. (Photo: The Weather Channel)
A polar vortex is bringing extreme cold temperatures to the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. (Photo: The Weather Channel)

After record warmth in January for most parts of the country, the Northeast and Midatlantic states are facing record cold, possibly life-threatening, temperatures this weekend — just in time for Valentine’s Day and the Presidents’ Day holiday on Monday.

The National Weather Service predicts “A bitterly cold airmass will settle over much of the central and eastern U.S over the next several days. Well below normal temperatures and cold wind chills will be common. In addition, heavy lake effect snow will be possible especially downwind of Lakes Erie and Ontario, where up to one foot of additional snow is forecast by Sunday morning.” Your local forecast could be even more chilling.

Extreme temperatures bring risks to people and property. For example, anyone who doesn’t take proper precautions is vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia. Buildings — especially those that are empty over the weekend — are subject to frozen pipes and overworked furnaces that could leave the buildings without heat or running water. Cars that are left parked could have dead batteries.

Here are six tips to help you stay safe if you need to venture outdoors:

Mittens are better than gloves

Mittens keep your hands warmer than gloves do. (Photo: iStock)

1. Avoid frostbite and hypothermia

No one should venture outdoors without wearing appropriate outdoor clothing such as layers of light but warm clothing, mittens (better than gloves), hats, scarves and waterproof boots, warns the Mayo Clinic. The severe wind chills that are predicted for this weekend could lead to frostbite in minutes.

You might also try hand and foot warmers. Be sure the foot warmers don’t make your boots too tight, restricting blood flow.

Watch for signs of frostbite. Early signs of frostbite include red or pale skin, prickling and numbness.

Don’t drink alcohol if you plan to be outdoors in cold weather. Alcoholic beverages cause your body to lose heat faster. Reach for a hot beverage instead: Drinking warm, sweet beverages, such as hot chocolate, will help you warm up.

Water faucet

Turn on a water faucet to a trickle to help prevent pipes from freezing. (Photo: iStock)

2. Keep pipes from freezing

If your pipes are on an outside wall or above an unheated space, such as a garage, run water in the sink, tub or shower at a trickle and keep cabinet doors open to prevent pipes from freezing. This is even more important to do if you lose heat or power at any time during the “deep freeze.”

You might be tempted to use a stove or oven to heat your kitchen or use an open flame to melt frozen pipes. These actions are highly likely to cause a house fire faster than they’ll heat your house.

Related: Snow, ice and frozen pipes: Are you covered? The 6 things every homeowner needs to know

Space heater

Make sure your space heater is the right size for the room you are using it in. (Photo: iStock)

3. Leave space for space heaters

Space heaters might be an option, but be sure you use them safely.

According to Energy.gov, when buying and installing a small space heater, you should follow these guidelines:

  • Only purchase newer model heaters that have all of the current safety features. Make sure the heater carries the Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) label.
  • Choose a thermostatically controlled heater, because they avoid the energy waste of overheating a room.
  • Select a heater of the proper size for the room you wish to heat. Do not purchase oversized heaters. Most heaters come with a general sizing table.
  • Locate the heater on a level surface away from foot traffic. Be especially careful to keep children and pets away from the heater.

Related: 10 dos and don'ts to prevent home fires

Fireplace safety

Take precautions if you decide to start up the fireplace. (Photo: iStock)

4. Keep the home fires burning — safely 

Before using a fireplace, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends the following actions:

Open the damper before lighting the fire and keep it open until the ashes are cool. This will avert the build-up of poisonous gases, especially while the family is sleeping.

  • Never use gasoline, charcoal lighter or other fuel to light or relight a fire because the vapors can explode. Never keep flammable fuels near a fire. Vapors can travel the length of a room and explode.
  • Do not use coal or charcoal in a fireplace because of the danger of carbon monoxide build-up. It is not a good idea to burn trash or wrappings in fireplace fires because polystyrene foam and other coated materials can generate deadly fumes. Flying paper embers could also ignite the roof.
  • Do not overload the fireplace. Large fires can lead to overheating of wall or roof materials, particularly if the fireplace is constructed of metal.
  • Always use a screen around the fireplace to keep sparks from flying out and to protect children and adults from accidental clothing ignition.

Related: Here's what you need to know about fire safety during the holidays

Warm up your car battery

Extreme cold weather can kill your battery. Periodically start your car and let it run until the engine heats up. (Photo: iStock)

5. Don't let your car battery die

Start by checking your tire pressure as extreme cold can deflate tires and make the car unsafe to drive.

You should also be sure that your car battery is fully charged. But don’t run the car in an enclosed space such as your garage. It’s all too easy to be overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning, in the car, in the garage and in the house.

If you’re going to be driving in life-threatening cold, be sure you have a car safety kit. The kit should include a blanket, warm clothes and gloves as well as fresh water in case your car breaks down or you become stranded. You can add hand and foot warmers if you have them.

Related: 15 tips for driving safely on ice and snow

Dog and cat in the snow

Pets can become disoriented, lost, hurt or die if left out in the cold. (Photo: iStock)

6. Bring your pets in from the cold

Many pets — especially dogs — aren’t aware of just how cold the weather can be. You’ll have to be sensitive to their limits, and you may have to wrap your pet in a coat or boots to go outside.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals provides the following advice to pet owners:

  • Pets burn extra energy by trying to stay warm in wintertime. Feeding your pet a little bit more during the cold weather months can provide much-needed calories, and making sure she has plenty of water to drink will help keep her well-hydrated and her skin less dry.
  • Make sure your companion animal has a warm place to sleep, off the floor and away from all drafts. A cozy dog or cat bed with a warm blanket or pillow is perfect.
  • Remember, if it’s too cold for you, it’s probably too cold for your pet, so keep your animals inside. If left outdoors, pets can freeze, become disoriented, lost, stolen, injured or killed.
  • Don’t leave pets alone in a car during cold weather, as cars can act as refrigerators that hold in the cold and cause animals to freeze to death.

With a few precautions we should all get through the bitter cold predicted for the weekend safe and sound.

Related: 4 ways to lessen winter insurance woes

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