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Tips On Preparing for the Extreme Cold Temperatures

By Guest Article by Rose Aldag-Mcvey, St. Mary's Hospital

Temperatures are colder than they have been in decades.  Are you prepared?  How dangerous can the cold get? Do you know the signs and symptoms of frostbite? And when should you seek medical attention? St. Mary's Hospital and Good Samaritan Regional Health Center Emergency Department doctors are happy to provide some insight.

According to David LeBeau, MD emergency department physician at St. Mary's Hospital, "the most frequent cold related problems we see are falls related to icy surfaces."  LeBeau has worked at the Centralia Emergency Department for twelve years.  "Hypothermia and frostbite are not frequent in this area but precautions should be taken.  Those with asthma should know their limits, know their trigger and avoid the cold weather."

When winter temperatures drop significantly below normal, staying warm and safe can become a challenge. Extremely cold temperatures often accompany a winter storm, so you may have to cope with power failures and icy roads. Although staying indoors as much as possible can help reduce the risk of car crashes and falls on the ice, you may also face indoor hazards. Many homes will be too cold-either due to a power failure or because the heating system isn't adequate for the weather. When people must use space heaters and fireplaces to stay warm, the risk of household fires increases, as well as the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Exposure to cold temperatures, whether indoors or outside, can cause other serious or life-threatening health problems.

Infants and the elderly are particularly at risk, but anyone can be affected. To keep yourself and your family safe, you should know how to prevent cold-related health problems and what to do if a cold-weather health emergency arises.  Plan ahead by having supplies such as blankets, first aid kit, flashlight and batteries, battery powered radio, show shovel, rock salt, and plenty of food which does not require refrigeration or preparation such as bread, crackers, cereal, canned foods, and dried fruits.  Remember baby food and formula if you have young children.  Have available clean water, at least 5 gallons per person and medications.  Of course, don't forget food and water for your pets too.  A comprehensive supply lists for the home and car may be found at the Center for Disease Control web site. 

Area residents seeking relief from the extreme temperatures are invited by St. Mary's Good Samaritan, Inc. to make use of the heated public areas at both campuses, St. Mary's Hospital in Centralia and Good Samaritan Regional Health Center in Mt. Vernon.  Individuals may utilize the Patient/Main Entrance lobby, lounges and cafeteria at both facilities as warming sites.  This is an open invitation through the duration of the extreme cold.  According to Rose Aldag-McVey, St. Mary's Good Samaritan spokesperson, "When the temperature and wind chill reach these excessive lows, it is very important to stay warm.  Extreme cold can be dangerous and we hope people will continue to take advantage of this offer.  We are trying to make sure people have a safe, warm place to go until the cold breaks."

Other relief centers are available in the public areas of Salem Township Hospital, the Odin Community Center, the Sandoval Fire Station and the Department of Human Services offices in Centralia and Mt. Vernon during their normal working hours.

Serious health problems can result from prolonged exposure to the cold. The most common cold-related problems are hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia

When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body's stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won't be able to do anything about it.

Victims of hypothermia are often (1) elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating; (2) babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; (3) people who remain outdoors for long periods-the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.; and (4) people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.

Warnings signs of hypothermia for adults include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness.  Signs in infants are skin which is cold and bright red along with very low energy.  If you notice any of these signs, take the person's temperature. If it is below 95°, the situation is an emergency-get medical attention immediately

Frostbite

Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite increases in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.

At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin-frostbite may be beginning. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:  a white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, or numbness.  A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the frozen tissues are numb.  If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care.

Knowing what to do is an important part of protecting your health and the health of others.  "Taking preventive action is your best defense against having to deal with extreme cold-weather conditions" states LeBeau.  "By preparing your home and car in advance for winter emergencies, and by observing safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather, you can reduce the risk of weather-related health problems and injuries. "

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