As Temperatures Plummet, State Health Commissioner Offers Tips on Weathering the Cold

ALBANY, N.Y. (January 23, 2013) – New York State Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H., is urging residents to take precautions against extreme cold as sub-freezing temperatures continue throughout the state.

"While New Yorkers are used to cold weather, exposure to the cold can sometimes cause life-threatening conditions, such as hypothermia and frostbite," said Commissioner Shah. "Taking common-sense precautions while indoors and outdoors can help to provide protection against these serious health risks."

Hypothermia is the general cooling of the whole body over time and is most common when a person's core body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia is dangerous and can be fatal if not detected immediately and treated properly.

Those most at risk are the elderly, infants, and those who work or play outdoors. For individuals over 65 years of age and infants, hypothermia can also occur indoors, so the thermostat should be set no lower than 68 degrees. The warning signs of hypothermia in adults are shivering, confusion, memory loss, drowsiness, exhaustion, slurred speech, puffy face, shallow breathing, a slow heartbeat and weak pulse. Infants who are suffering from hypothermia may appear to have very low energy and bright red, cold skin.

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.

When outside, take extra precautions to reduce the risk of hypothermia and frostbite. 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. 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.

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 are already working overtime just to stay warm and dress appropriately and work slowly when doing heavy outdoor chores.

It is important to note that drinking alcoholic beverages can give individuals a false sense of body warmth, but actually causes the body to lose heat more rapidly. Alcohol can also cause disorientation and raise the risk of falling on icy surfaces.

Extreme winter weather also increases the likelihood of carbon monoxide (CO) exposure from malfunctioning appliances, improperly used generators, or cooking devices used for heat. A carbon monoxide alarm can warn you if CO levels in the air approach dangerous levels. Unlike a smoke alarm, a CO alarm expires after several years. Replace the alarm as indicated by the manufacturer.

Generator Safety

Never run a generator in your home or indoor spaces, such as garages, basements, porches, crawlspaces or sheds, or in partly enclosed spaces such as carports or breezeways. Generators should only be operated outside, far away from (25 feet or more if possible) and downwind of buildings. Carbon monoxide in the generator's fumes can build up and cause carbon monoxide poisoning, which can lead to death. Do not exceed the rated capacity of your generator. Overloading your generator can damage it and any appliances connected to it. Fire may result. Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions. Fuel spilled on a hot generator can cause an explosion. If your generator has a detachable fuel tank, remove it before refilling. If this is not possible, shut off the generator and let it cool before refilling.

Alternate Heating Sources

If you use a fireplace, wood stove, or portable kerosene heater to stay warm, be sure there is adequate ventilation to the outside. Without enough fresh air, carbon monoxide fumes can build up in your home. Never use a natural gas or propane stove/oven to heat your home. If you are using a kerosene heater, use 1-K grade kerosene only. Never substitute with fuel oil, diesel, gasoline or yellow (regular) kerosene.

Open a window to provide ventilation when a portable kerosene heater is in use to reduce carbon monoxide fumes inside the home. If you plan to cook on a barbeque grill or camp stove, remember these also produce carbon monoxide and are for outdoor use only.

Fire Safety

When adding fuel to a space heater, or wood to a wood stove or fireplace, wear non-flammable gloves. Never add fuel to a space heater when it is hot. The fuel can ignite, burning you and your home. Keep the heater away from objects that can burn, such as furniture, rugs or curtains. If you have a fire extinguisher, keep it nearby. Be careful with candles--never leave them burning if you leave the room. Keep children away from space heaters, fireplaces and wood stoves to avoid accidental burns.

Check on your family or neighbors and find out how they're doing. Make sure they know what to do--and what not to do--to protect their health.

More information and precautions about cold weather can be found at: