Take precautions to prevent hypothermia
August 28, 2008 · Updated 8:40 AM
Every year, hypothermia kills about 600 Americans, half of whom are 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hypothermia occurs when a persons body temperature drops below normal and stays low for a prolonged period of time.
Many people are surprised to know that hypothermia can occur indoors, especially in babies and older or ill adults that are not dressed warmly enough. With the temperatures dipping into the teens and twenties over the next few days, its important to be aware of the signs of hypothermia, said Zakiya Steadman, MD, a Family Practice physician at The Everett Clinic in Marysville.
Signs of Hypothermia
Look for the umbles stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles. These show that the cold is affecting how well a persons muscles and nerves work.
Early symptoms include: shivering, cold, pale, or blue-gray skin, lack of interest or concern (apathy), poor judgment, mild unsteadiness in balance or walking, slurred speech, numb hands and fingers and difficulty performing tasks.
Late symptoms include: the trunk of the body is cold to the touch, muscles become stiff, slow pulse, breathing is shallow and slower, weakness or sleepiness, confusion, loss of consciousness.
Shivering may stop if body temperature drops below 90*F (32*C).
See your doctor to keep any illnesses under control. Some illnesses may make it harder for your body to stay warm including health problems that keep your blood flowing normally such as diabetes, said Dr. Steadman. Some skin problems such as psoriasis that allow your body to lose more heat than normal should also be monitored.
Many prescription drugs may make you more sensitive to the cold, so check with your physician or pharmacist to find out if your medication falls in this category, said Dr. Steadman. Some medicines used by older patients may increase the risk of accidental hypothermia such as those used to treat anxiety, depression or nausea. Some over-the counter cold remedies may also cause problems.
Other things you can do to prevent hypothermia:
Try to stay away from cold places. Changes in your body that come with aging can make it harder to feel when you are getting cold. It may be harder for your body to warm itself. Pay attention to how cold it is where you are.
Make sure you eat enough food to keep up your weight. If you dont eat well, you might have less fat under your skin. Fat protects your body by keeping in body heat.
Do not drink alcohol before bedtime when it gets cold. Alcoholic drinks can make you lose body heat faster. Use alcohol moderately, if at all.
Wear several layers of loose clothing when it is cold. The layers will trap warm air between them. Clothing can make you colder or help keep you warm. Tight clothing can keep your blood from flowing freely. This can lead to loss of body heat.
Staying Warm Inside and Out
Homes or apartments that are not heated enough, even with a temperature of 60* F to 65* F, can lead to illness. This is a special problem if you live alone because there is no one else to comment on the chilliness of the house or to notice if you are having symptoms of hypothermia. Set your thermostat for at least 68* F to 70* F. If a power outage leaves you without heat, try to stay with a relative or friend.
Avoid using space heaters if your home seems cold or if you want to keep the thermostat set lower to keep your heating costs down. Some types are fire hazards, and others can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
Zakiya Steadman, M.D. specializes in Family Practice at The Everett Clinic at Marysville. She received her medical degree from Temple University and completed her residency at Trident Family Medicine in Charleston, South Carolina. Dr. Steadman is board certified in Family Practice. She can be reached at 360-651-7495.