Health Director Maggie Dollar today advised Lincoln County residents to take extra precautions during days of severe cold weather to avoid cold-related illnesses such as hypothermia.
“Exposure to cold temperatures can cause your body to lose heat faster than it can be produced,” Ms. Dollar said. “If prolonged, exposure to cold will eventually force the body to use up its stored energy. The result can be hypothermia, which means abnormally low core body temperature.”
Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and will not be able to do anything about it.
Environmental conditions that cause cold-related stresses are low temperature, cool high winds, dampness, and cold water. Hypothermia can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water.
Kelly Bragg, Health Educator with the Lincoln County Health Department, said that early and mild symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, mental slowness or lethargy, muscular stiffness and clumsiness. Symptoms of severe hypothermia include mental confusion, disorientation, stupor or coma, absence of shivering, stiff or rigid muscles, shallow and very slow breathing, weak pulse, and fall in blood pressure. If symptoms of hypothermia are detected, especially in an elderly person, immediate medical help should be sought.
Victims of hypothermia are most often:
- elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating; especially those who are homebound or bedfast. The elderly have less fatty tissue insulation, impaired shivering mechanism, lower metabolic rates, chronic illnesses, medications, limited mobility and less perception of the cold;
- babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; and
- people who remain outdoors for long periods, i.e. the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.
“We encourage everyone to check on elderly neighbors, friends and relatives during cold weather to make sure they are keeping warm,” Ms. Dollar said.
When taking children outdoors adults should protect them from the severe cold by using multiple layers of clothing and blankets, making sure the extra clothing does not restrict the baby’s breathing or movement. Infants less than 1-year-old should never sleep in a cold room because infants lose body heat more easily than adults; and unlike adults, infants are not able to make additional body heat by shivering.
To prevent hypothermia, Ms. Dollar advises Lincoln County residents, particularly the elderly, to take the following precautions:
- Wear several layers of warm, loose-fitting clothes.
- Sleep with plenty of blankets.
- Eat hot, well-balanced meals.
- Maintain daily contact with some other person outside of your home.
- Avoid the use of alcoholic beverages.
- If able, exercise lightly to increase body heat.
- Place emergency phone numbers in a handy place.
- Check with your doctor to see if the medications you take will affect body temperature.
- Plan for cold-weather emergencies such as a power outage or being stranded in a vehicle.
Frostbite is another cold-related illness caused by actual freezing of skin and sometimes underlying tissues. Symptoms of frostbite include changes in skin appearance such as swelling; reddish, bluish or whitish coloring; numbness; stiffness or rigidity. Although frostbite is not as life threatening as hypothermia, it can lead to loss of frozen fingers, toes, or other affected skin areas. To prevent frostbite, protect skin from direct exposure to cold air and from exposure to intensely cold wind.
Another winter hazard is carbon monoxide poisoning, which causes injury to the brain and the heart and resulting in permanent damage or death. Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur with the use of gas or kerosene heaters. It also occurs with indoor use of charcoal used for either home heating or cooking.
People having a hard time paying to heat their homes can seek help through their county social services department or call the NC CARE-LINE at 1-800-662-7030 for information on nonprofit organizations which may be able to assist.
For further information about protection against hypothermia or frostbite, citizens may go to the Center for Disease Control web site and click on Winter Weather, or contact their personal physician or local public health department. For help on paying heating bills, contact the county department of social services.