Dangers of the cold

Cold weather kills more than 700 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We’ve enjoyed a “warm” January so far, but weather experts are saying that “normal” temperatures are on the way.

That’s right – cold weather is in the forecast. Cold weather can be hazardous to your health if you don’t take precautions.

It’s called “the insidious killer.” It can come upon you when you least expect it, and it almost immediately attacks and diminishes your capacity for reason and logical thought.

“IT” is hypothermia, the loss of body temperature. It is dangerous and is the most common reason for outdoor deaths listed as “caused by exposure.” Hypothermia is not literally freezing to death because – and this is the most insidious part – serious and even fatal cases of hypothermia can occur at temperatures well above freezing.

As with all warm-blooded creatures, the human body requires a certain body temperature to function and can maintain that temperature – about 98.6 degrees – under “normal” conditions.

When body heat is lost more rapidly than the body is generating it, hypothermia occurs.

At 96 degrees – just two degrees colder – one begins to shiver and shortly loses the ability to perform complicated tasks.

At 91 degrees, the victim is uncoordinated, he stumbles, slurs his speech and can’t think well.

At 86 degrees, the victim begins to act irrationally.

At 81 degrees, the victim is in a stupor; a bit colder, he is unconscious. At 78 degrees, death is near.

This is not solely a concern of Arctic explorers and ice fishermen.

Even at temperatures in the 40s and 50s, an unprotected, unprepared person caught in the wrong set of conditions could be in serious trouble in less than six hours.

Think of the people you see wandering around town in thin jackets. Now think what would happen if they became stranded on a lonely back road.

It stands to reason that an unprepared individual will have real problems in today’s weather.

Preventing hypothermia is, of course, the best treatment.

Older people especially must beware of the cold even when they are inside their homes because they are more susceptible to hypothermia. They are advised to layer their garments even indoors, if necessary.

Other individuals venturing outdoors must prepare accordingly.

– Dress in layers. Layers of clothing trap more air and keep you warmer than one heavy garment.

– Carry enough clothing to keep you comfortable under the coldest conditions expected. Wind resistant outerwear should be part of the day’s wardrobe.

– Remember adequate headgear. You can lose up to half of your body’s heat through an unprotected head and neck.

– Stay dry. Getting wet greatly accelerates heat loss, and most fabrics lose insulating properties when wet. Wool is preferred because it retains a measure of its insulating ability when wet.

– Take along high-energy snack food such as candy or trail mix to help your body generate heat.

– Learn the signs of oncoming hypothermia – shivering, clumsiness, slurred speech.

Should someone show these symptoms, take immediate measure to get him warm – into shelter, away from wind and insulated from the cold ground. Get the victim’s wet clothes off and put him into a sleeping bag or blanket near a source of heat.

Give a conscious victim warm liquids and food. Do not give alcohol as it impairs the body’s heat regulatory mechanisms.

Frostbite is another cold weather danger.

It occurs when cellular fluid, skin and tissue beneath the skin freezes after exposure to cold air.

Skin that becomes red and then pale, or with yellowish-white spots probably is frostbitten. Mild frostbite can be treated by heating the affected areas with warm hands.

Frostbitten hands can be warmed by placing them under your armpits.

Severe cases of frostbite are characterized by bluish or purplish skin, swelling, large blisters and blood clots.

Deep frostbite can affect skin all the way to the bone, and requires immediate medical attention.

Stay warm this winter.