January 16-22, 2012
Cold Weather is Back in a Big Way – and so is the Need to Guard against Hypothermia
For a venerable older lady, Mother Nature has offered a surprisingly spot-on imitation of an impulsive teenager over the past year.
After a cool, drizzly winter of 2010, she abruptly shut off the waterworks, cranked up the heat and subjected Texas to a drought-parched heat spell of historic proportions. Now, just as suddenly, she’s lashing the state with wave after wave of polar air from the north and rain-laden clouds from the south.
The abrupt shift from mellow fall to hard wintry freezes isn’t exactly rare for Texas, but each year it catches many of us unaware. The greatest threat of unexpected cold-weather exposure is hypothermia, the severe or prolonged loss of body heat.
Hypothermia becomes a serious possibility when one’s body temperature falls below 95 degrees. Because our definition of “cold as all get-out” (anything south of 30) differs significantly from that of folks nearer to Canada than Mexico (well below zero), dropping body temperature has a tendency to sneak up on us. Another problem is that mental confusion, a classic early symptom of hypothermia, keeps some people from realizing there’s a problem.
The most vulnerable people, the Texas Department of State Health Services says, are those 60 and older, babies and small children, people who are sick, those taking certain prescription drugs or drinking alcohol, the homeless and others stuck without shelter in cold weather.
One issue older adults face is that their metabolisms often are slower than those of young people. People 60 and older also may not feel or respond to cold as quickly as the young because the body’s natural alarm signal — the shivering reflex that increases blood flow — lessens with age. And some folks, especially older people on fixed incomes, may set their thermostats low to reduce their heating bills.
To reduce potential dangers, the Texas Department of State Health Services suggests:
Always check your local weather forecasts (short- and long-term) before any outdoor activity in cold weather.
Don’t let convenience dictate your clothing choices. Being safe means dressing for extreme weather, even if you have to carry heavier clothing with you in anticipation of temperature drops. In general, you should wear loose-fitting clothing in layers, gloves and a face cover to block the wind whenever you’re outside.
Try to stay dry at all times — and change clothes promptly if you do get wet.
When cold weather hits, be sure to look in on neighbors who are elderly or ill, especially if they live alone. Check them closely for symptoms of hypothermia, including confusion and drowsiness, slurred speech, abnormally low blood pressure, shallow breathing and a pinkish tint to the skin. Anyone with these symptoms during cold weather could be in immediate danger.
Take extra precautions with children and people who are ill.
Even when it’s only moderately cool, remember that strong wind can cause a wind chill far below freezing. This can not only cause rapid heat loss and possible hypothermia but also frostbite — actual freezing of skin and body tissue.
To get a feel for the relationship between thermometer readings and how much colder win can make you feel, check the National Weather Service’s Wind Chill Chart: www.nws.noaa.gov/om/windchill/index.shtml.