Hypothermia A Significant Health Threat

Friday, February 20, 2015 | 03:17pm

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Health and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency are warning residents that alcohol and certain drugs increase the risk for hypothermia. The condition occurs when the body’s core temperature drops to 95° or lower and its effects can be deadly.

A total of 13,419 hypothermia-related fatalities were recorded in the U.S. in the last decade. According to a recent CDC publication, men accounted for 67 percent of these deaths and people of advanced age had the highest rates of death. Rates of death for men and women over age 65 were more than double those of the general population. Alcohol and other drugs were a factor in approximately 10 percent of the deaths.

“We all need to be prepared and dress for the weather. If that is not practical during car travel or work, we can keep warmer clothes in our cars and do our best to keep a closer eye on older friends, relatives and neighbors. Call EMS for assistance if you are unsure if someone is at risk,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “It is even more important if you are drinking alcohol or suspect someone else has been drinking to watch out for hypothermia. That warm feeling from alcohol is basically heat leaving your body, as alcohol and some other drugs make it harder for your body to retain and regulate heat.”

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, just a few degrees less than the normal 98.6 degrees F. Symptoms of hypothermia include being confused, sleepy, apathetic and delirious. Hypothermia can also cause a person to slip into a coma, causing the heart and respiratory system to fail. The Tennessee Department of Health suggests dressing in layers, changing out of wet clothes, limiting time outdoors and avoiding alcohol. Adopting a “buddy” system is also recommended so friends can check on one another often to look for signs of cold weather health problems.

“We’ve sadly lost Tennesseans to cold weather this year already and we need to make sure more of our friends and neighbors are protected from harm,” said TEMA Deputy Commissioner David Purkey. “If there are older people in your neighborhood, check on them regularly to make sure they’re okay. Dress in layers to protect yourself and keep additional warm clothing in your vehicle. If you need help getting to a doctor, call on emergency first responders to aid you. Your actions in the remaining cold weather could save a life.”

Tips to be prepared for dangerous weather conditions when driving. These tips can help keep you and your family safe:

• Keep at least a half-tank of gas in your vehicle at all times and be sure you have an emergency kit in the vehicle. This should include candles and matches, a blanket, food such as energy bars and water, a small shovel, flashlight with fresh batteries, first aid supplies, a charger for your cell phone, ice scraper, gloves and extra clothing.

• Before traveling, inspect your vehicle to ensure it is road-worthy for winter including a check of the battery, anti-freeze and tires. Also ask for a check of the exhaust system; a leaky exhaust system could cause dangerous carbon monoxide to enter the passenger compartment. If you have questions or are unsure, consult your mechanic.

• Always tell someone your travel route and when you will arrive and return. If you don’t have to drive, stay home or use public transportation.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is also a threat during the winter months. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas that causes more than 400 deaths and 20,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. each year. It is found in combustion fumes produced by small gasoline engines, stoves, generators, lanterns and gas ranges, or by burning charcoal or wood in a fireplace. Carbon monoxide from these sources can build up in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces; people and animals in these spaces can be poisoned and can die from breathing the gas.

Remember: Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. You can go to bed at night and you may not wake up the next morning. Take the necessary steps needed if you develop any symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning like headaches, dizziness and weakness.

Tips to help avoid carbon monoxide poisoning:

• If your home heating system fails and you use a generator, do not operate it in the house where dangerous carbon monoxide fumes can accumulate. Follow all product instructions and use caution to prevent build-up of fumes when using kerosene heaters.

• Make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors have fresh batteries and are working properly.

• Never use an outdoor grill indoors for cooking or warmth, as these grills put out significant amounts of carbon monoxide and increase fire danger.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips on winter health and safety, including checklists to help you prepare for winter weather, at www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/index.asp. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has resources for winter weather preparedness at www.ready.gov/winter-weather.