Montana: Caution Encouraged For Extreme Cold Weather

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Extreme cold weather can be dangerous for nearly everyone and can cause serious, even life-threatening, health issues, especially for infants and the elderly. Knowing how to be prepared for cold weather helps reduce the risk. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services encourages Montanans to take some simple steps to make sure that people keep warm and healthy as the cold weather settles in.

Exposure to cold temperatures can cause hypothermia (an extreme lowering of the body's temperature) and death. Hypothermia is a real danger if a person is not properly dressed or warmed, even in their homes.

Cold Can Kill

According to Dr. Steve Helgerson, state medical officer for DPHHS, Montana was second only to Alaska in the rate of deaths linked to hypothermia from 1999 to 2004. Montana's rate was five times greater than that in the U.S. During that period there were 59 hypothermia deaths in the state. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that victims of hypothermia are often elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating; babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; people who remain outdoors for long periods; and people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.

To prevent hypothermia, take the following precautions.

* Cover exposed skin and wear a hat to prevent heat loss.
* Avoid overexertion that might cause sweating and increased cardiac stress.
* Wear loose-fitting layers of clothing that trap heat close to the body.
* Avoid consuming alcohol and other drugs that impair judgment.
* Stay dry and go inside to warm up when you begin to shiver.

When exposed to cold temperatures, the human body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. "Confusion, dizziness, exhaustion and shivering are signs of hypothermia," Dr. Helgerson said. "Victims often are not aware that they are suffering from hypothermia. If you experience the symptoms, or your body temperature is 95 degrees or less, seek emergency medical attention immediately."

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Carbon Monoxide and Fire Hazard

Fireplaces, space heaters, kerosene, and catalytic heaters can cause fires if not operated correctly in well ventilated areas away from furniture or draperies. Caution should be taken with some appliances to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, which can be fatal. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause illness and death if inhaled. It is found in combustion fumes, such as those produced by small gasoline engines, stoves, generators, lanterns, and gas ranges. Practice the following prevention tips to minimize the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning.

* Never burn charcoal inside homes, vehicles or garages.
* Do not burn charcoal in the fireplace in your home.
* Never use gasoline-powered equipment indoors.
* Never use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
* Never idle a car in a garage, even when the garage door is open.
* Never sleep in a room while using an unvented gas or kerosene heater.
* Make sure chimneys and flues are in good condition and are not blocked.
* Have fireplaces, wood stoves and oil or gas appliances checked every year by a professional.

Common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, and confusion. "If you think you may have carbon monoxide poisoning, get away from the source of the gas and call 911 immediately," Helgerson added.

Appliances intended for outdoor use, such as gas grills or other equipment, should not be used inside as heating devices.

Be Prepared

Keeping your home well heated is important to prevent cold related health concerns, but safety and caution must be exercised as well. People can prepare their homes for cold weather by being prepared for power outages, having flashlights, batteries, radio, cell phone, and extra food and water at hand. Food that does not require cooking is best in an emergency. Be sure to keep a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit on hand as well.

Purchasing and using a carbon monoxide detector and smoke detectors can help prevent a tragedy during the cold weather season.

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