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Health Officials Say Winter Weather Can Create Significant Health Risks

The Marion County Public Health Department wants everyone to make certain they are prepared for the bitterly cold temperatures associated with winter in Central Indiana.

"When exposed to cold temperatures, our bodies begin to lose heat at a faster rate than it can be produced. The result is a condition known as hypothermia. This condition can impact the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well," said Virginia A. Caine, director, Marion County Public Health Department.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hypothermia most frequently occurs at very cold temperatures, but can take place even at temperatures above 40 degrees if the person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water.

"There are several precautions people should take when outside in extreme cold conditions for extended periods. The first is to dress appropriately by wearing several layers of clothing," said Dr. Rawle A. Seupaul, an emergency medicine physician at Wishard Health Services and associate professor at the IU School of Medicine. "It is also important to keep moving. This will help increase your circulation and will make you feel warmer and more comfortable."

Infants and older people are most at risk for hypothermia. Infants lose body heat more easily than adults and infants can't make enough heat by shivering. Infants should never sleep in a cold room and should be dressed appropriately with all extremities covered when taken into cold outdoor conditions. Like infants, older people make less body heat. Others who are at increased risk include adults under the influence of alcohol, mentally ill individuals and people who remain outdoors for long periods of time.

Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, confusing, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. In infants, warning signs can include bright red, cold skin and very low energy.

Another common cold weather health risk is frostbite. Frostbite is an injury to the body caused by freezing. It creates a loss of feeling color in the impacted areas. The nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes are most likely to be frostbitten. Warning signs of frostbite include redness, pain, a white or grayish-yellow skin coloration, skin that feels firm or waxy and any numbness. If frostbite is suspected, the person should be taken quickly into a warm area. If possible, the damaged skin should be placed in warm, not hot water. If water is not available, body heat can be used. For example, a frostbitten hand could be placed in a person's armpit for warming. As with any injury, medical care should be sought for appropriate treatment.

Before traveling, listen to weather reports to gauge whether or not it is safe to travel. Delaying travel until the extreme conditions diminish may be the safest decision to make.

Eating well-balanced meals will help you stay warmer. Do not drink alcoholic beverages-they cause your body to lose heat more rapidly. Instead, drink warm, sweet beverages such as hot chocolate to help maintain your body temperature. If you have any dietary restrictions, ask your doctor.

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