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January 2, 2014

Frigid weather forecast: Elderly, infants at risk when temperatures plunge

— Bitter cold expected today and again early next week is more than a miserable inconvenience, it can be life threatening, experts say.

“We have many instances where we have people actually die from exposure and hypothermia,” state Physician General Carrie DeLone said.

“This is where you can’t maintain your body’s core temperature,” she continued. “It can occur quite rapidly, either indoors or outdoors.”

Elderly people and the very young are especially at risk, DeLone said.

She also advised parents to keep close tabs on infants and toddlers during frigid weather.

“Infants need to be in rooms that will remain at least between 65 and 70 degrees,” she said.

Babies should be dressed in layers to avoid getting too warm and sweating before being taken to a colder location.

“When you get wet and sweaty, you lose more heat more rapidly,” DeLone said.

Caregivers and family members need to take extra precautions with the elderly when it gets cold – especially for those with chronic conditions or dementia, said Dr. Daniel Wehner, emergency medicine director at Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.

“One of the first effects is, they become lethargic and confused,” Wehner said. “They don’t realize they are cold.”

They often react by not moving out of their chair or bed and staying in the cold room.

“Check on elderly family and neighbors,” Wehner urged. “Call or visit several times a day because it could develop in several hours. If they sound confused when you talk to them over the phone, it is probably best to check on them.”

Those with diabetes and circulation problems may not feel the cold as quickly, DeLone added.

When visiting homes, make sure the rooms are warm and that there is a proper heat source with enough fuel, the experts say.

It is important to make sure the family members are eating enough and getting enough fluids.

Although dehydration is often associated with heat stroke during hot weather, it also can  accelerate hypothermia.

Wehner compares it to the cooling and antifreeze system in a car. The more fluid moving through the system, the better the temperature is regulated.

Improper heat sources, such as camp stoves, lanterns and charcoal grills, are linked to carbon monoxide deaths every year, DeLone said.

Healthy adults and teens are not immune from hypothermia, especially if their clothing gets wet while they are outdoors for extended periods, DeLone said.

Frostbite is another danger that can strike quickly in frigid weather.

“Stay indoors,” is the first rule during sub-zero weather. Those forced to venture out should bundle up, leaving as little exposed skin as possible, Wehner said.

“In general, use common sense,” Wehner said. “Make sure you protect your fingers and toes. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

Plan ahead, advises Ron Springer, executive director for Cambria County emergency services department.

“There is a brief warm-up coming Saturday and Sunday if you have to work outside,” he said. “If you can, leave it for a day or two after that.”

Keeping extra coats, blankets or other protection in vehicles can be life-saving as well, he noted.

If there is an emergency, the region’s volunteer fire companies are ready for the cold, Springer said.

“The fire departments are ready from the beginning of November until the end of winter,” he said. 

Firefighters’ state-of-the-art protective gear is not only a shield for flames, it’s also good winter armor, said Richard B. Lohr, Somerset County emergency services executive director.

In extreme cold, the fire crews work in shifts, finding shelter to warm up and take in some hot coffee during breaks, he said.

Although their numbers are down, volunteers staffing the fire service don’t avoid responding when it’s cold, Lohr said.

“If you are a true firefighter, you are going to do it when it’s 10 below or when it’s 90 degrees out,” Lohr said. “It’s part of the job.”

It may take a little longer in the snow and ice, Springer said.

“In bad weather, our response time is cut down, both getting to the fire station and responding to the emergency,” he said.

Motorists can help by slowing down, keeping their windshields clear and being alert for approaching emergency vehicles, he said.

“We are all sharing the same road, and the road is slippery and not as wide as normal,” Springer said.

Clearing driveways and sidewalks can aid emergency responders who come to help in a crisis, Lohr said. It’s another thing to remember when checking on elderly family and neighbors.

Randy Griffith covers health care for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.

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