When I was in grade school, science class teachers routinely talked about the coming of another Ice Age. And if this winter is any indication, maybe they were right after all.
So–with temperatures around the country repeatedly plunging to record lows, and staying low, let’s talk about hypothermia, or cold stress. It’s a greater threat than most people realize.
You may not worry much about hypothermia if you don’t spend a lot of time outside in the winter. But many cases of hypothermia happen quite by accident. Your car breaks down and you get stranded out in the cold. Or your heat or electricity goes out and you have to wait until Monday for the repair. But even if you do have heat in your house or apartment, hypothermia can strike, as I’ll explain in a moment.
You see, the human body’s normal temp is right around 98.6° F. And hypothermia occurs when your body temperature falls below 95° F. So, there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room before trouble starts. Plus, older adults, people with diabetes or circulatory problems, and infants are more susceptible to danger.
Obviously, the best thing you can do to prevent hypothermia is to stay inside on very cold days. But prepare for emergencies. And invest in a small generator. If the heat goes out, you can use it to plug in an electric blanket or heater. And if you have a wood burning fireplace, or wood stove, make sure to stock up on good, dry wood.
You can also run into trouble by keeping the thermostat in your house too low in an effort to keep heating bills down. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), if you keep your thermostat between 60° F and 65° F, your home or apartment may not be warm enough to keep you safe. For some people, this temperature can contribute to hypothermia. The NIA recommends older people or people will chronic illness keep their thermostat between 68° F and 70° F in the winter months.
The NIA says older adults can also run into trouble during cold weather by not drinking and eating enough. Your body needs extra fuel when it’s cold outside. So, make a nice batch of the Russian Bear’s cure-all chicken soup. And drink plenty of nice, warm Red Joe on cold days to stay hydrated. You need hydration in winter because the colder the outdoor air, the drier the air. And the more you have to heat indoors, the more it bakes out any moisture in the air.
If you must travel in cold weather, make sure to stock your car with emergency supplies. Get a plastic tub and stock it with a blanket, flashlight, water, a few protein bars, matches, and a flare. A syphon pump, in case you run out of gas, isn’t a bad idea either. Also, pick up a pack of hand-warmers at the drug store. You crush the bag and a controlled chemical reaction inside creates heat. You can use these bags if you have to change a tire or fiddle with a car engine.
If you do get stranded, you’ll obviously want to do your best to stay warm. But also make sure to stay DRY! Wet clothes can increase heat loss by 500 percent. Also, make sure to limit alcohol. Alcohol is a vasodilator. So, it increases blood flow to your extremities and makes you feel warm while increasing heat loss.
When cold weather strikes, it’s always a good idea to have a good support network. Check in on family and neighbors who you think are susceptible. And ask them to check in on you.
Some of the signs of hypothermia are easy to misinterpret. So, it’s important to know what to look for. For example, signs might not include shivering. Instead, victims may appear extra sleepy or confused.
Here is a good list of the often-subtle signs of hypothermia:
- sudden change in appearance or behavior
- skin that is cool to the touch
- drowsiness and difficulty speaking
- cold and stiff muscles
- chest pains
- slow breathing
- puffy or swollen face
- trembling of an arm, leg, or on one side of body
- difficulty with co-ordination or balance
If you suspect hypothermia, here’s what to do:
- call 911
- gently wrap the person with blankets, quilts or towels
- get person to a hospital for treatment
What NOT to do:
- do not administer hot drinks or hot foods
- do not place in hot tub or shower
- do not give alcohol or drugs
- do not cover head or neck
- do not massage arms or legs
Now, when TV newscasters drone on and on about getting milk and toilet paper during the next “polar vortex,” you’ll know about the real necessities…a good winter blanket, some cure-all chicken soup, and a warm cup of Red Joe. And make sure to keep that thermostat at a comfortable level before the trouble starts.