Extreme cold brings health hazards - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Extreme cold brings health hazards

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News release from the West Central Health District

 "With temperatures falling below freezing, West Central Georgia residents should take precautions to avoid cold-related illness, warns West Central District Health Director Dr. Zsolt Koppányi.  In our region, we are familiar with the dangers related to severe heat but may not be as prepared to cope with extremely cold weather. When winter temperatures drop significantly below normal, staying warm and safe can become a challenge.  Dangers associated with sub-freezing weather lurk both outdoors and indoors," Koppányi said.

Many homes will be too cold, because of power failures or inadequate heating systems.   The risk of household fires and/or carbon monoxide poisoning can increase when people rely on space heaters or fireplaces to stay warm.  Also, the economic downturn means more people may be doing without heat or may be homeless. Extreme cold is a dangerous situation that can bring on health emergencies in susceptible people, such as those without shelter, those who are stranded outdoors and those who live in homes that are poorly insulated or without heat.

Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, is a significant risk.  When you are exposed to cold temperatures, your body loses heat more quickly than it can produce it. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body's stored energy, affecting your ability to move and clouding your brains ability to think clearly.  "What makes hypothermia especially dangerous is that you may not realize it is happening to you, cautioned Koppányi.

Symptoms of hypothermia in adults include:

Shivering                   Memory Loss

Exhaustion               Slurred speech

Fumbling                   Drowsiness

Confusion

 

In infants, symptoms include bright red, cold skin and very low energy, Koppányi said. 

Those most at risk of hypothermia include:

  • Elderly people with inadequate food, clothing or heating
  • Babies sleeping in cold bedrooms
  • People who remain outdoors for long periods, such as homeless people and hunters
  • People who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs

During the next few days and nights, it is very important to bundle up. Cold weather gear includes a hat, a scarf or knit mask to cover your face and mouth, and mittens, which are warmer than gloves. You should wear several layers of loose-fitting clothing, and the outer layer of your clothing should be wind-resistant if possible. When the wind blows, it can carry the heat away from your body quickly. 

Shivering is your body's signal that it's time to get out of the cold, he said.

Don't ignore shivering. It means your body is losing heat. "Persistent shivering means you need to return indoors and warm up," explained Koppányi.

The hazards of extremely cold weather are not limited to the outdoors.  During this cold snap, residents may be turning to heat sources that are not used frequently. Inappropriate use of a wood stove, fireplace or space heater can lead to tragedy.  Dr. Koppányi stressed that combustion heaters like fireplaces, kerosene heaters and wood stoves should be properly vented and chimneys should be clear so smoke or fumes do not back up.   Also, use the fuel your heater is designed to take and don't substitute.  Space heaters should not be used if they produce sparks or have damaged electrical cords. "Residents who use space heaters should not place them near flammable objects such as curtains or furniture," added Koppányi.

Further, people using alternative heat sources should be aware of the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.   Carbon monoxide gas is known as a silent killer. It odorless and colorless, so you may not realize it is building up.  If you are using alternative sources for heating or cooking in a poorly ventilated room, you could become ill suddenly, lose consciousness and possibly die.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseated. "Anyone suspecting carbon monoxide poisoning should open doors and/or windows and seek emergency medical treatment," said Koppányi.

For more information about cold weather health hazards, contact your county health department or go online to www.westcentralhealthdistrict.com or www.cdc.gov.