Extreme cold brings health hazards

Published 8:05 pm Tuesday, January 5, 2010

With temperatures falling below freezing, Southwest Georgia residents should take precautions to avoid cold-related illness, warns Southwest District Health Director Jacqueline Grant.

“In our region, we are familiar with the dangers related to severe heat but may not be as prepared to cope with extremely cold weather,” Grant said. “When winter temperatures drop significantly below normal, staying warm and safe can become a challenge.”

Dangers associated with sub-freezing weather lurk both outdoors and indoors, Grant said.

Email newsletter signup

“Many homes will be too cold, because of power failures or inadequate heating systems,” she said. “When people rely on space heaters or fireplaces to stay warm, the risk of household fires increases. So does the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Also, the economic downturn means more people may be doing without heat or may be homeless.

“Extreme cold is a dangerous situation that can bring on health emergencies in susceptible people, such as those without shelter, those who are stranded outdoors and those who live in homes that are poorly insulated or without heat,” Grant said.

Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, is a significant risk, she said.

“When you are exposed to cold temperatures, your body loses heat more quickly than it can produce it. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy, affecting your ability to move and clouding your brain’s ability to think clearly,” cautioned Grant. “What makes hypothermia especially dangerous is that you may not realize it is happening to you.”

Symptoms of hypothermia in adults include:





 Memory loss

 Slurred speech


In infants, symptoms include bright red, cold skin and very low energy, Grant said.

Those most at risk of hypothermia include:

 Elderly people with inadequate food, clothing or heating

 Babies sleeping in cold bedrooms

 People who remain outdoors for long periods, such as homeless people and hunters

 People who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs

“During the next few days and nights, it is very important to bundle up,” Grant said. “Cold weather gear includes a hat, a scarf or knit mask to cover your face and mouth, and mittens, which are warmer than gloves. You should wear several layers of loose-fitting clothing, and the outer layer of your clothing should be wind-resistant if possible. When the wind blows, it can carry the heat away from your body quickly.”

Shivering is your body’s signal that it’s time to get out of the cold, she said.

“Don’t ignore shivering. It means your body is losing heat. Persistent shivering means you need to return indoors and warm up,” explained Grant.

The hazards of extremely cold weather aren’t limited to the outdoors, she said.

“During this cold snap, residents may be turning to heat sources that aren’t used frequently,” Grant said. “Inappropriate use of a wood stove, fireplace or space heater can lead to tragedy.”

She stressed that combustion heaters like fireplaces, kerosene heaters and wood stoves should be properly vented and chimneys should be clear so smoke or fumes don’t back up.

“Also, use the fuel your heater is designed to take and don’t substitute,” she said.

Space heaters should not be used if they produce sparks or have damaged electrical cords. People who use space heaters should not place them near flammable objects such as curtains or furniture, added Grant.

Further, people using alternative heat sources should be aware of the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Carbon monoxide gas is known as a silent killer. It odorless and colorless, so you may not realize it is building up,” Grant said. “If you’re using alternative sources for heating or cooking in a poorly ventilated room, you could become ill suddenly, lose consciousness and possibly die.”

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseated. Anyone suspecting carbon monoxide poisoning should open doors and/or windows and seek emergency medical treatment, said Grant.

For more information about cold weather health hazards, contact your county health department or go online to www.southwestpublichealth.org or www.cdc.gov.