Since many youth activities revolve around being outdoors, every youth leader should be familiar with the risks of heat and cold exposure. Follow these guides to help keep youth safe on any outdoor activity.
Churches need to develop cold-weather policies that address concerns related to exposure to cold weather for students, church members, and staff. Advance planning is needed concerning outdoor activities, as well as the use of vehicles.
Church and youth leaders need to remain alert to three potential health risks that surface during cold weather: 1) overexertion, 2) frostbite, and 3) hypothermia.
Overexertion can occur in many ways. A common cause for this in the winter is shoveling snow. Breathing cold air causes some blood vessels to constrict. At the same time, the loss of body heat, combined with the strenuous physical activity, causes the heart to work harder as it must pump blood through more narrow arteries.
Warning signs of overexertion include shortness of breath, chest pain, or tightness in the chest. If these occur, the person should immediately stop and seek help.
If your youth are considering a service project or anything requiring exertion in cold weather, be aware of the risks of overexertion.
Frostbite and Hypothermia
Frostbite and hypothermia also pose health risks. Many churches sponsor outdoor activities such as ski trips during the winter months, especially for youth.
Each church should establish guidelines that dictate when outdoor activities should be suspended based upon the forecast, temperature, and wind chill. For example, a winter storm watch indicates severe winter conditions are possible within the next 48 hours. A winter storm warning means that severe winter conditions have begun or are about to begin. Establish guidelines for youth leaders that determine your church’s policy on youth activities during these conditions. Also provide guidance on how to dress for individuals who participant in outdoor activities during cold weather, or employees who must be outside. Recommend multiple layers of loose-fitting cotton or wool clothing with an outside layer that is water repellent and wind resistant. Layers can be removed as needed to prevent perspiration or chill. Since the head and neck lose body heat faster than any other part of the body, it is important to keep them covered, preferably with a hood or with a hat and scarf. Generally, mittens provide greater warmth than gloves, and woolen socks are also a good choice.
Train leaders to be on the alert for signs of frostbite. The cheeks, ears, and nose are especially vulnerable to frostbite.
Symptoms of frostbite include a loss of feeling and a pale or white appearance in the fingers, toes, ears, cheeks, or nose.
To treat frostbite, apply a gentle, steady pressure with a warm hand, but DO NOT rub or massage. Hold the frostbitten area against a warm body and gently breathe warm air on it. DO NOT rub the area, apply snow, or thrust the area into hot or cold water. If the injured parts of the body are immersed in warm water, the water should be between 102 and 106°F. If the water is too hot or too cold it can cause additional damage. A thermometer must be used to determine the water temperature.
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops too low. Any person with a temperature below 95°F needs immediate medical help.
Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses, stumbling, drowsiness, and exhaustion.
If a person develops hypothermia, warm the trunk of the body first, followed by the arms and legs. Wet clothing should be changed to avoid the loss of body heat. Remove any clothing that could restrict blood flow. Wrap the person in a blanket and avoid giving caffeine (coffee or tea), alcohol, drugs, hot beverages, or food. The best choice is warm broth. Caffeine is a stimulant and can cause the heart to beat too fast while alcohol is a depressant and can cause the heart to beat too slow. Either one can accelerate the impact of cold on the body.
For either hypothermia or frostbite, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Concerns Related to Extreme Heat or Sun Exposure
Staying too long in the sun or in excess heat can cause illnesses. Youth should be reminded to wear sunscreen when they participate in outdoor activities. Avoid extended periods in the sun during the strongest heat of the day, from 10 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. If you must be outdoors during those periods, try to stay in the shade as much as possible, wear lightweight reflective clothing, and use sunscreen. Drink plenty of water and avoid drinks with caffeine. Drink water even if you are not thirsty.
Common heat disorders include sunburn, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. The Federal Emergency Management Agency notes the following about each disorder:
Sunburn. Symptoms include skin redness and pain, possible swelling, blisters, fever, and headaches. Treatment includes taking a shower and using soap to remove oils that may block pores preventing the body from cooling naturally. If blisters occur, medical help should be sought.
Heat cramps. Symptoms include heavy sweating and painful spasms, usually in the leg and abdominal muscles. First aid can be given by gently massaging the muscles to relieve the spasm. Sips of water can be taken but should be discontinued if nausea occurs.
Heat exhaustion. Symptoms include heavy sweating, weakness, a weak pulse, pale and clammy skin, fainting, and vomiting, although a normal temperature is possible. First aid includes having the victim lie down in a cool place. Loosen the clothing and apply wet, cool cloths. Fan or move the person to a room with air conditioning. Give sips of water but if nausea occurs discontinue. If vomiting occurs, seek immediate medical attention.
Heat stroke. Symptoms include a body temperature of 106 degrees, hot dry skin, a rapid pulse, and possible unconsciousness. The victim is not likely to sweat. Heat stroke is a severe medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. Call 911 or get the victim to an emergency room immediately. Delay can be fatal. Cool the person with cool sponging, fans, and the removal of clothing. DO NOT GIVE FLUIDS.
Outdoor health and safety risks can be serious, but if you’re careful and prepared for emergencies, these risks need not ruin your fun. So go ahead—let them play outside a little longer. Just make sure you’re prepared.