Cold Weather Poses Health, Safety Risks

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Marion County Health Department wants everyone to make certain they are prepared for the bitterly cold temperatures associated with winter in Central Indiana.

When exposed to cold temperatures, our bodies begin to lose heat at a faster rate than it can be produced. The result is a condition known as hypothermia. This condition can impact the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hypothermia most frequently occurs at very cold temperatures, but can take place even at temperatures above 40 degrees if the person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water.

Infants and older people are most at risk for hypothermia. Infants lose body heat more easily than adults and infants can't make enough heat by shivering. Infants should never sleep in a cold room and should be dressed appropriately with all extremities covered when taken into cold outdoor conditions. Like infants, older people make less body heat. Others who are at increased risk include adults under the influence of alcohol, mentally ill individuals and people who remain outdoors for long periods of time.

Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. In infants, warning signs can include bright red, cold skin and very low energy.

Another cold weather health risk is frostbite. Frostbite is an injury to the body caused by freezing. It creates a loss of feeling color in the impacted areas. The nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes are most likely to be frostbitten. Warning signs of frostbite include redness, pain, a white or grayish-yellow skin coloration, skin that feels firm or waxy and any numbness. If frostbite is suspected, the person should be taken quickly into a warm area. If possible, the damaged skin should be placed in warm, not hot water. If water is not available, body heat can be used. For example, a frostbitten hand could be placed in a person's armpit for warming.

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As with any injury, medical care should be sought for appropriate treatment.

Being prepared for the potential risks of extremely cold weather can help lower the risk for injuries. When dressing for cold weather adults and children should wear a hat, a scarf or knit mask to cover the face and mouth, sleeves that cover to the wrist, mittens or gloves, water-resistant coat and shoes and several layers of loose-fitting clothing.

Before traveling, listen to weather reports to gauge whether or not it is safe to travel. Delaying travel until the extreme conditions diminish may be the safest decision to make.

No one should be left unattended in an automobile in times of extreme cold, especially children. Vehicles should be locked when not in use to ensure curious children do not accidentally lock themselves inside.

Pets are also vulnerable in cold weather. Make certain they have access to a protected space where they can get out of the cold and wind, have fresh water and food.

Those who know of elderly individuals, those living alone or those who may not have access to reliable sources of heat should be contacted regularly. There are many assistance programs available in Marion County to assist those who may have trouble paying winter heating bills.

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