Less than a year ago, actress Natasha Richardson was taking a beginner's lesson on a Quebec ski hill when she fell and hit her head. Although she didn't initially appear to be hurt, tragically, two days later she died of a brain hemorrhage. The fact that Richardson wasn't wearing a helmet has prompted some ski hills, such as Mont Tremblant Resort in Quebec, to make them mandatory for certain age groups. The accident also has more people talking about how helmets can prevent serious injuries and save lives.
Here's what you need to know to protect yourself and your kids – and make the right choices when selecting a helmet for various winter activities.
Take safety seriously
Brain injuries are the leading cause of death and disability in children, and are the most common cause of death among skiers and snowboarders, according to The Brain Injury Association of Canada (BIAC) and injury prevention experts.
"People don't realize the long-term consequences of a simple head injury, let alone a complex one," says Richard Kinar, an advocate for helmet standards who works with the BIAC and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). "It's a life-altering event."
These injuries – which can range from concussion to skull fracture and bleeding – can also lead to many difficulties later in life, such as learning disabilities, and behavioural and emotional problems. Moreover, The Alzheimer Society has identified a link between brain injury and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's. Worst of all, head injuries can easily be fatal.
Most winter sports – including skiing, skating, snowboarding, tobogganing, snowmobiling, even cross-country skiing – carry the potential for injury. Consider this: when you're downhill skiing, you can reach a speed of 45 kilometres per hour; 35 kilometres per hour when you're tobogganing.
How to buy a helmet
Who should wear a helmet and for what sports? "If you see Olympic or professional athletes wearing a helmet when they participate in a sport, you should be wearing one, too," says Denyse Boxell, a project leader at Safe Kids Canada. And helmets are not just for kids – adults participating in these activities should also wear them. As for what type of helmet to wear for which activity, here are a few guidelines.
• For skating, a hockey helmet is best, since it's tested for the kind of falls that can happen on ice. All hockey helmets sold in Canada are certified by the CSA International; look for the logo on a sticker on the inside and the back of the helmet.
Page 1 of 3 – On page 2, discover what other criteria you need to know when buying a helmet.• Don't think that your bike helmet can sub in for winter equipment. Hockey, ski and snowboard helmets are specifically designed to withstand impacts at higher speeds than bike helmets, says Boxell, and the way kids tumble off bicycles is different than the way they fall while skating or skiing.
• For skiing, snowboarding or tobogganing, in which backward falls are common, Boxell recommends a ski or snowboard helmet, which covers more of the back of your head than a bike helmet.
• Not every helmet for sale is approved by the CSA. "Look for some sort of safety standard," says Boxell. "Right now, if you're looking for a ski or snowboard helmet for tobogganing, or any alpine-type activities, you can look for a helmet that has CE (the European safety seal), Snell [a nonprofit American organization that certifies helmets] or ASTM (the American standard)." The CSA has just developed a testing and certification program for alpine ski and snowboard helmets accredited by the Standards Council of Canada, so you'll soon be able to buy helmets approved by the association.
• Avoid a helmet that doesn't have any type of certification. "These helmets may offer no protection at all," says Anthony Toderian, spokesperson for the CSA. "They may be no better than wearing a tuque on the ski hill."
• Spending a fortune on a fancy brand won't make you any safer. All helmets that are certified meet the same standards, says Boxell.
Get the right fit
Regardless of what type of helmet you're buying, try it on in the store first. Do the same for your kids or make sure you can return it if you get it home and realize it doesn't fit the following criteria.
• Never buy your child a helmet that's too large, with the idea that he'll grow into it.
• Make sure your helmet is a snug yet comfortable fit; tighten the chin strap so you can only fit one finger between the strap and your chin. "You should also be able to tilt your head toward your shoulders, and sort of shake yes or no, without any movement on the helmet," says Boxell. "If it's jostling or slipping, it's not the right size of helmet for you."
• If you're going to be wearing goggles (such as for skiing or snowboarding), ensure they fit with the helmet – there shouldn't be a gap of more than two fingers' width between the top of the goggles and the helmet.
• Experts don't recommend wearing a hat under your helmet, because it changes the way the helmet fits your head.
• If you're in a store that deals exclusively in ski and snowboard equipment, ask for help with fitting and about the types of safety equipment you'll need for your activity. Otherwise, read and follow manufacturers' instructions.
Page 2 of 3 – On page 3, discover which symptoms you should never ignore after taking a fall.
Replacing a helmet
• Some helmets are only meant to withstand a single crash, says Toderian, so check the product packaging or manufacturers' instructions to check if yours is a single- or multiple-impact helmet. (The main difference is the type of foam used in the core of the helmet.)
• It's not a lifetime purchase: helmets need to be replaced regularly because weather, temperature and UV rays can cause them to deteriorate. The CSA recommends following the manufacturer's guidelines for the life span, care and use of your helmet. An older helmet may not meet current safety standards, and could have missing or broken parts.
• For many reasons, most experts don't recommend buying a secondhand helmet. "You don't know how old the helmet is, or whether it's been in some sort of a crash, and you really can't rely on a helmet that's been in a crash to protect you from a head injury," says Boxell.
When to get help
The effects of a brain injury – even a mild bump or concussion – are difficult to predict and often not immediate. "No two brain injuries are the same," says Harry Zarins, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Canada. "That's the scary part – it could be a multitude of issues with a brain injury, not just limited to being stuck in a wheelchair." Signs of a serious head injury that require immediate medical attention include:
• Unconsciousness, person is not breathing, severe bleeding, signs of shock;
• Severe headache, neck stiffness, nausea, vomiting;
• Memory loss, confusion, difficulty speaking, slurred speech;
• Persistent crying or fussiness (in young children);
• Difficulty waking up or extreme sleepiness;
• Loss of vision, changes in pupil shape or size, abnormal eye movement; and
• Dizziness, unsteadiness that prevents standing or walking.
Zarins recommends all head injuries be evaluated by a doctor. To reduce swelling, apply ice or cold packs, and use acetaminophen to relieve mild headache pain. A responsible adult should watch the injured person for the following 24 hours for signs of the serious symptoms mentioned above.
For more info on helmet safety, check out these sites:
• Safe Kids Canada www.safekidscanada.ca
• Brain Injury Association of Canada www.biac-aclc.ca
• Helmets Save Lives www.helmetssavelives.org
• ThinkFirst Canada www.thinkfirst.ca
• Injury Free Zone, safety games and videos for kids www.injuryfreezone.com
Page 3 of 3 – On page 1, discover everything you need to know before you buy a helmet to keep your family safe.