While Kentucky winters are often milder than those further north, sometimes the temperature here still drops to bitterly cold temperatures, catching people off guard.
Wintry weather and low temperatures can be dangerous, which is why it’s important to plan ahead to stay healthy and safe when temperatures begin to drop.
Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature that occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Unfortunately, it can also be deadly. A 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 2003 and 2013, more than 13,400 hypothermia deaths occurred in the United States, an increase from the decade before.
Normal body temperature is around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and hypothermia begins as a person’s body temperature passes below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This drop in temperature can be dangerous to the heart, nervous system and organs. When left untreated, the heart and respiratory system can fail.
While hypothermia is most often a result of exposure to cold weather or cold water, some people — typically the elderly — may develop mild hypothermia after prolonged exposure to indoor cold temperatures. This can occur in a poorly heated home.
While shivering is often the first sign of mild hypothermia, other signs include dizziness, hunger, faster breathing, nausea, trouble speaking, fatigue, slight confusion and increased heart rate. As hypothermia worsens, a loss of consciousness may occur, along with a weak pulse and shallow breathing. During this time, shivering often ceases.
Those most at risk for hypothermia include infants and children, senior citizens, the mentally ill, and people addicted to drugs and alcohol. Those suffering from health disorders or people on a number of medications — including certain antidepressants, antipsychotics, narcotic pain medications and sedatives — may also be at greater risk for hypothermia.
Common causes for hypothermia include staying out in the cold too long, wearing clothes that aren’t warm enough for the current weather conditions, and falling into water and being unable to get out of wet clothes or move to a warm location.
Someone who is experiencing hypothermia should immediately be taken indoors to warmer conditions, and moved very carefully. Jarring movements can trigger dangerous irregular heartbeats. Wet clothing should be removed and the victim should be covered in layers to stay warm. Medical attention should be sought immediately.
Taking preventive action is your best defense against the cold of winter. Before you or your loved ones head outdoors, put on protective clothing and layers, making sure your head, hands, face and neck are covered. Avoid activities that will make you sweat heavily, and stay as dry as possible.
Prepare your car for winter emergencies by stocking it with blankets, matches, candles, drinking water, and a bag of sand or kitty litter to spread for traction if you’re stuck in the snow. If you or someone you know are showing signs of hypothermia, call 9-1-1 or seek emergency care immediately.
Dr. Jessica Pennington is with KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates.