Health Department Offers Cold Weather Advice

Albany, New York, January 14, 2004 - With National Weather Service reports forecasting extremely cold temperatures across the nation’s Northeastern region, and with temperatures expected to decrease well-below zero degrees Fahrenheit, State Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello, M.D., M.P.H., Dr.P.H. is urging all people to take precautions against extreme cold.

"With temperatures expected to dramatically plummet over the next few days, we are stressing that all residents take precautions to avoid exposure to extremely cold conditions which can lead to hypothermia," Dr. Novello said. "Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition that causes the body’s core temperature to drop. Warning signs of hypothermia in adults include shivering, confusion, memory loss, drowsiness, exhaustion and slurred speech. Infants who are suffering from hypothermia may appear to have very low energy and bright red, cold skin."

Accidental hypothermia can occur even with temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. People who are over 65, should set their home thermostat no lower than 65 degrees Fahrenheit, while those individuals 75 or older should maintain inside temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Infants less than one year of age should never sleep in a cold room and should be provided with warm clothing and a blanket to prevent loss of body heat.

Frostbite is another cold weather concern, and is especially dangerous because it often happens with little warning. Numbness can occur so quickly that the individual, unaware of being frostbitten, may remain outside, increasing the chance of permanent damage. Older persons, and those with diabetes, are especially vulnerable to frostbite because of impaired circulation.

Frostbite occurs in three stages: First degree frostbite usually causes a whitening of the skin, followed by redness, tingling and loss of feeling. In second degree frostbite the skin turns purple and blisters begin to form. Third degree frostbite, which affects those subjected to severe exposure, can lead to gangrene and amputation. Snowmobilers, skiers and ice skaters should stop frequently to check exposed areas of their body for loss of feeling and other danger signs.

To prevent frostbite and hypothermia, it is important to dress warmly in windproof clothing and to go indoors when you begin to feel cold. Wear several layers of loose-fitting clothing to trap body heat. Fasten buttons or zippers and tighten drawstrings securely. Don’t forget gloves, mittens and a hat that covers the ears. Be aware of the effects of wind chill. As the speed of wind increases, it can carry heat away from the body faster. In high wind conditions, cold weather-related health problems are much more likely. Be sure the outer layer of clothing is tightly woven to reduce body-heat loss caused by wind.

Since cold weather puts an extra burden on the heart, if you have cardiac problems or high blood pressure, follow your doctor’s orders about shoveling or performing any strenuous exercise outside. Even otherwise-healthy adults should remember that their bodies already are working overtime just to stay warm, and dress appropriately and work slowly when doing heavy outdoor chores.

Keep in mind that alcoholic beverages cause the body to lose heat more rapidly. If you will be spending time outside, do not ignore shivering - it is an important first sign that the body is losing heat and a signal to quickly return indoors.

Never operate a generator indoors. As temperatures remain extremely low and cold weather grips the region, it is important that residents take important precautions to avoid exposure to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide when using a generator to produce electricity in a power outage or an alternative heating source such as a non-electric space heater or wood stove to warm their homes.

Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless, poisonous gas that is produced as a result of incomplete burning of carbon based fuels. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to the flu but do not include a fever. At lower levels of exposure, a person may experience a headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Exposure to very high levels of carbon monoxide can result in loss of consciousness and even death.

Individuals who plan on using an alternative source of heat during extended power outages, such as a non-electric space heater, wood stove or fireplace, be sure to have adequate ventilation to the outside to prevent build-up of carbon monoxide inside your home. Never use a natural gas or propane stove or oven to heat your home. If you are using a generator as a temporary source of power, remember that the motor emits carbon monoxide.

In addition, when using alternative heat from a space heater, wood stove or fireplace, individuals should take precautions when handling or maintaining the heating source by using protective wear such as non flammable gloves and clothing. Adults must make sure that children and potentially flammable objects are kept a safe distance from the heating source and have an operable fire extinguisher available. Residents should install both carbon monoxide detectors and fire detectors throughout the home and test them periodically.

To keep water pipes from freezing in the home:

  • Let faucets drip a little to avoid freezing;
  • Open cabinet doors to allow more heat to get to un-insulated pipes under a sink or appliance near an outer wall; and
  • Make sure heat is left on and set no lower than 55 degrees.

Individuals and their families should be knowledgeable on how to shut off the water source to the home in the event that the pipes freeze and burst. This action will stop the water flow and help minimize the damage to the home. Residents who experience frozen or burst water pipes should contact a plumber and their insurance agent. Never try to thaw a pipe with an open flame or torch and be aware of the potential for electric shock in and around standing water.

If someone you know - a friend, neighbor or relative - is elderly or dependent on life-sustaining or health-related equipment such as a ventilator, respirator or oxygen concentrator, check on them on a regular basis to further ensure their safety and well-being.