For Immediate Release: November 21, 2018
Vermont Department of Health
802-951-5153 / 802-863-7281
Below Average Cold a Reminder to Know How to Protect Against Hypothermia
BURLINGTON – With possibly record cold temperatures forecast for Vermont this week, health officials encourage all Vermonters to take steps to protect against hypothermia, and to keep in mind that older adults are particularly vulnerable to the health risks that can come with cold temperatures.
Hypothermia happens when your body temperature is abnormally low. It is caused by being in cold temperatures for an extended period of time, but can occur at milder temperatures if you are wet. When you are in cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced. Older adults, infants and people with chronic medical conditions are especially susceptible to hypothermia, even after relatively short exposure to cold weather or a small drop in body temperature.
Covering your skin, dressing in layers, staying dry, and limiting your time outside are all ways to help prevent frostbite and hypothermia. Older adults and young children, people who spend a lot of time outdoors, and people with conditions that make it harder to regulate their body temperature are at highest risk.
Twenty-six Vermonters died due to hypothermia between 2008 to 2016. Often, these incidents involved people who spent a long time outdoors, such as hunters and people who were homeless, those who consumed too much alcohol or misused drugs, and people who had a chronic medical condition such as dementia.
“Anytime it’s cold, especially this cold, it’s very important that people take care to protect against hypothermia,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD. “Lengthy exposure to the cold can affect the brain, making it hard to think clearly or move well. So, if you are alone in a cold house, a hunter out in the cold, or a student walking home alone after a night out drinking, things can go badly very fast.”
Dr. Levine said many deaths from hypothermia can be prevented. “Be sure to know the early warning signs, and take time to check that friends, family and neighbors are safe, especially those with a chronic disease, who have mobility issues or are likely to be alone.”
Hypothermia can be particularly dangerous because you may not know it’s happening. Warning signs of hypothermia include: slowed or slurred speech; sleepiness or confusion; shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs; poor control over body movements; slow reactions, a weak pulse, or a core body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
If someone is experiencing hypothermia, get them to a warm room, remove any wet clothing, get them under dry layers of clothes and blankets, and seek medical attention.
Take steps to prevent hypothermia:
- Make sure your home is warm enough. Experts suggest that for older people the temperature be set to at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Dress warmly and stay dry. Wear several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight clothing, rather than a single layer of heavy clothing. Wear a hat, mittens, and sturdy waterproof boots. Make sure older adults and babies are dry and in a warm room.
- Limit time outdoors. Minimize outside activities during extreme cold.
- Know how your medication may affect you in the cold. Ask your doctor if any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking increase your risk for hypothermia.
- Eat and drink healthy. Well balanced meals help you stay warmer. Drink warm fluids to maintain a healthy temperature. Alcohol and caffeinated beverages cause you to lose heat more rapidly.
- Tell others where you are. Make sure people know when you're planning to spend time outdoors, and bring along a fully charged cellphone.
See how to avoid, spot and treat frostbite and hypothermia: cdc.gov/cpr/documents/hypothermia-frostbite_508.pdf
Find more winter weather health and safety information: healthvermont.gov/environment/climate/winter-weather
People who need heating fuel assistance, housing, or other needs can contact Vermont 2-1-1 at vermont211.org or by simply dialing 2-1-1.
The National Institute of Aging has free information about hypothermia, including tips on cold weather safety for older adults: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cold-weather-safety-older-adults.
Energy costs may discourage older people from keeping their houses warm enough in the winter. To help, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funds to help low-income homeowners and renters meet home heating needs through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Applicants in Vermont can call 1-800-479-6151, visit their local Department of Children and Families District Office, or online at dcf.vermont.gov/benefits/fuel-assistance.
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