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Much of the country is still freezing and under an arctic blast that brought snow and ice to places, such as Texas, that are unaccustomed to severe winter weather. Millions have lost power, and therefore heat, which can lead to medical emergencies such as frostbite and hypothermia.
Older people are especially vulnerable when temperatures drop because they have less efficient circulation. They also may have medical conditions (such as thyroid problems or diabetes) and take medications (such as beta-blockers) that can raise their risk of health problems, including injuries, in the cold, says Matthew Levy, associate professor of emergency medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Bone density decreases, which could put someone at risk for injuries from falls, and blood pressure medicine may not allow your heart rate to increase as needed” [when shoveling snow, for instance].
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Another issue is a decrease in muscle mass, says Ronan Factora, M.D. a geriatric medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Normal muscle “is what twitches and creates heat when we shiver.” Because we have less muscle when we're older, we're less able to generate that vital heat.
Medical Emergencies Caused by Cold
Hypothermia. This occurs when one's body temperature, normally around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, sinks below 95 degrees — a medical emergency that can cause cardiac arrest and death, as the cold causes arteries and blood vessels to narrow, which limits the amount of oxygen flowing to the heart. The temperature doesn't need to be below freezing to cause this condition, but just cold enough to lower body heat by only a few degrees. Warning signs include shivering, confusion, shallow breathing and drowsiness.
How to treat it: Call an ambulance immediately. While you wait, keep the person warm and dry, using blankets or anything you have on hand. If the person is able to drink, give him or her a warm beverage without alcohol.
Frostbite. As blood flow is focused away from fingers and toes in order to keep up core body temperature, the extremities suffer — fingers, toes, nose and ears. The skin starts to tingle (an early stage called frostnip), then feel numb, and may look grayish or white. In extreme cases, it can turn black, as skin dies. Because it begins with numbness, Factora says, it's a good idea to check your fingers and toes when you are able to do so safely. It can later become excruciatingly painful.
How to treat it: Warm water immersion is a standard treatment. If the skin is truly waxy and pale, however, “you want to avoid partially rewarming and having it refreeze,” Levy says. If possible, first get the person somewhere where he or she can stay warm.
How to protect yourself in frigid temperatures
Pile on the layers. If you have no heat in your home, gather all blankets, coats, sleeping bags — anything that will allow you to maintain your body temperature — and bundle up. If your car is in a garage and you can't open the garage door, don't run the heater in your car to get warm or to charge devices.
Be careful with candles. If possible, use a flashlight as a light source instead of candles, which are a fire hazard.
Keep the weather outside. Do anything you can to maintain the temperature indoors if you don't have a heat source (or even if you do). The National Institute on Aging suggests keeping blinds and curtains closed, and to roll towels and place them under doors to keep out drafts. Close the doors to unused rooms and avoid opening doors to the outside unless absolutely necessary.