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Even cool indoor temperatures can trigger hypothermia

SPRINGFIELD – As below freezing temperatures hit Illinois, Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) Director Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck is reminding residents about two health conditions caused by cold winter weather that can lead to serious injury and even death – hypothermia and frostbite.

“With more arctic weather forecasted for Illinois, it is important to recognize the signs of hypothermia and frostbite, how to treat these conditions and what you can do to avoid them,” said Dr. Hasbrouck. “Everyone should take precautions against hypothermia, but infants and the elderly are particularly at risk and should be monitored closely.”

Hypothermia is a drop in body temperature to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or less and can be fatal if not detected promptly and treated properly. The condition usually develops over a period of time, anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Even consistent, mildly cool indoor temperatures of 60 degrees to 65 degrees F can trigger hypothermia.

Infants lose body heat more quickly than adults, and the elderly often make less body heat because of a slower metabolism and less physical activity. IDPH recommends setting the thermostat above 65 degrees F and checking on elderly friends and neighbors frequently to ensure their homes are adequately heated.

Signs of hypothermia include:

Forgetfulness

Drowsiness

Slurred speech

Change in appearance, such as a puffy face

Weak pulse

Slow heartbeat

Very slow, shallow breathing

Coma or death-like appearance, if the body temperature drops to or below 86 degrees F

If you notice these symptoms, take the person’s temperature. If it is 95 degrees F or below, call a doctor or ambulance, or take the victim directly to a hospital. A drop in temperature below 90 degrees can create a life-threatening situation. To prevent further heat loss, wrap the person in a warm blanket. You also can apply a hot water bottle or electric heating pad (on a low setting) to the person’s abdomen. If the person is alert, give small quantities of warm food or drink. Do not give a hypothermia victim a hot shower or bath. It could cause shock. Do not try to treat hypothermia at home. The condition should be treated in a hospital.

Frostbite is caused by bitterly cold temperatures and typically affects exposed areas of the face (cheeks, nose, chin, and forehead), the ears, wrists, hands and feet. When spending time outdoors during cold weather, be alert for signs of frostbite. Frostbitten skin is whitish and stiff, and the area will feel numb rather than painful. If you notice these signs, take immediate action.

To treat frostbite, warm the affected part of the body gradually. Wrap the frostbitten area in blankets, sweaters, coats, etc. If no warm wrappings are available, place frostbitten hands under your armpits or use your body to cover the affected area and seek medical attention immediately. Do not rub frostbitten areas. The friction can damage the tissue.

If you must go outdoors during below freezing temperatures and the wind-chill is below zero, dress properly for the weather.

Wear several layers of lightweight clothing. The air between the layers of clothing acts as insulation to keep you warmer.

Cover your head. You lose as much as 50 percent of your body heat through your head.

Wear mittens rather than fingered gloves. The contact of your fingers keeps your hands warmer.

Wear warm leg coverings and heavy socks or two pairs of lightweight socks.

Cover your ears and the lower part of your face. The ears, nose, chin and forehead are most susceptible to frostbite. Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect the lungs from directly inhaling extremely cold air.

You can find more information in the IDPH Weathering Winter booklet at http://www.idph.state.il.us/public/books/weatheringwinter.htm.

Providing essential health information during emergencies is one way IDPH is working toward becoming the state’s leading public health authority, and implementing IDPH’s Five Year Strategy. For a copy of the strategic plan, go to http://www.idph.state.il.us/about/StrategicPlan_Final_2014-2018.pdf

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