When winter temperatures drop, staying warm and dry can be a challenge. With cold winter weather already upon us and expected for the days ahead, state health officials recommend Hoosiers take steps to plan for the cold.
“These extremely cold temperatures, paired with ice and snow, can be treacherous,” said state health Commissioner William VanNess, M.D. “I encourage everyone to stay indoors as much as possible through next week. When you do go outside, bundle up and wear a water-resistant coat and snow boots.”
Serious health problems can result from prolonged exposure to the cold. The most common cold-related problems are hypothermia and frostbite, said Indiana State Department of Health spokesperson Amy Reel.
Hypothermia, which is the condition of having an abnormally low body temperature, occurs when a person’s body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to the cold will ultimately use up a body’s stored energy. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well.
Warning signs of hypothermia in adults include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. She advises, "If you notice signs of hypothermia, take a person’s temperature. If his or her temperature is below 95 degrees F., seek medical attention immediately."
Babies and older adults are especially vulnerable in these extremely cold temperatures. It’s important for these groups to stay in rooms with adequate heat.
Signs of hypothermia in infants include bright red, cold skin and very low energy. According to her, "Infants less than 1 year old should never sleep in a cold room because they lose body heat more easily than adults and, unlike adults, they cannot make enough body heat by shivering." Adults age 65 and older may make less body heat because of slower metabolism and less physical activity. Hoosiers are encouraged to check on older adult neighbors and relatives.
Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body and, in severe cases, can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.
Warning signs of frostbite include white or grayish-yellow skin, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy and numbness.
"At the first signs of redness or pain, get out of the cold," Reel recommends. Seek care from a health care professional immediately if symptoms of hypothermia or frostbite are detected.
For individuals who must go outdoors, health officials recommend wearing these items:
• A hat or hood (as most heat is lost through the head)
• A scarf or knit mask to cover face and mouth
• Sleeves that are snug at the wrist
• Mittens, which are warmer than gloves
• Water-resistant coat and boots
• Several layers of loose-fitting clothing.
Indoors, area residents should take precautions to ensure they are heating homes safely and that they have working carbon monoxide detectors.
For more information about winter weather safety, persons may visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site at www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/guide.asp; or the ISDH Web site at www.StateHealth.in.gov.