Health Officials Suggest Precautions when Temps Drop

Gale Horton Gay | 2/6/2013, 1:51 p.m.

While this winter's weather continues to makes wild swings, local health officials offer warnings about conditions that can occur when temperatures dip.

Hypothermia is one of the serious health problems that can be caused by exposure during cold weather. If a person's body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, seek immediate medical attention.

"When exposed to cold weather, our bodies lose heat faster than it can be produced which could result in bodily injury, illness, and even death," said Pamela B. Creekmur, Prince George's County's health officer.

Symptoms of mild cases of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering and pale, cold skin. More serious signs include confusion or sleepiness, slurred speech, shallow breathing, weak pulse, stiffness in the arms or legs and poor control over body movements.

For those who suffer from poor circulation, and others who aren't properly dressed for the wintry season, frostbite can occur without a person being cognizant of what's taking place. It's the freezing and destruction of body tissue which is likely to occur any time skin temperature falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Toes, fingers, ears, cheeks and the tip of the nose are the areas of the body that are most likely to freeze. The danger increases when extremities become wet.

Signs of frostbite include gradual numbness, hardness and paleness, pain and tingling following warming as well as skin color changing to purple. Health experts advise never to massage or rub frostbitten areas as this may cause further damage to the skin.

One should contact a doctor or call 911 if serious symptoms are present. "Until help arrives or the person is seen by a doctor, move the person to a warm room, warm the body with dry layers of blankets or clothing, and give warm beverages," the health department advises.

Douglas Mayo, chairman of Prince George's Hospital Center's Emergency Department, said temperatures don't have to reach freezing to be dangerous. Prolonged exposure to temperatures hovering above 32 degrees Fahrenheit can be potentially hazardous to one's health. However those who are active when they are outdoors in frigid weather - using their muscles by running, skiing or snowboarding - are less likely to run into trouble, he said.

"Sitting still you can get in trouble a lot quicker," said Mayo.

Those most vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite are the homeless, substance abusers, those with mental health illnesses and the elderly. In addition, individuals with diabetes and vascular issues are also at risk, he said.

He said severe hypothermia results in a "clouding of the mind," which may make some people less aware of what is happening to their bodies.

Mayo said he wasn't aware of any hypothermia or frostbite cases coming through his emergency department this winter. However, the public should take precautions.

The Prince George's County Health Department suggests local residents check up on elderly relatives and neighbors to ensure they have adequate heat and protection from the cold.

"We want to remind residents to dress in layers, wear mittens versus gloves and to cover your head when outside for significant periods of time" said Creekmur. "These are just a few of the simple ways to prevent illness that may result from extreme cold weather conditions."

The health department also offers the following winter weather health tips: Cover the head. As much as 50 percent of body heat is lost through the head. Wear several layers of lightweight, loose-fitting clothing. The air between the layers acts as insulation to keep one's body warmer. Cover one's mouth with a scarf to protect lungs from direct, extremely cold air. Cover ears and the lower part of the face as well. Wear mittens rather than fingered gloves. The close contact of fingers helps to keep hands warm. Wear warm leg coverings and heavy socks or two pairs of lightweight socks. Wear waterproof boots or sturdy shoes to keep feet warm and dry.