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Illinois consistently ranks among the top five states that report the highest numbers of cold-related deaths. Hypothermia is most likely to set in when temperatures are below freezing, though it can still be a threat when the mercury reaches 40 degrees or so. Infants, the elderly, and people with other health conditions are the most vulnerable.
Of the cold-related deaths reported in Cook County, many of the victims were at least 60 years old, and/or had chronic conditions, such as heart disease.
Even when hypothermia doesn’t claim the lives of its victims, it still takes a considerable toll. During the most frigid spells, emergency rooms report scores of patients coming in with frostbite and other complications from the cold. Know the risks and protect yourself and your loved ones. Beyond the common-sense caveats to bundle up, wear layers, and limit your exposure to cold, consider these tips.
Know the signs. Signs of hypothermia include:
- Mumbling or slurred speech
- Weak pulse
- Lack of coordination
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Memory loss or confusion
- Drowsiness or extremely low energy
- Loss of consciousness
- (In infants) bright red, cold skin
Check on the elderly. Seniors can lose body heat faster than younger people, so hypothermia can set in very quickly. Check on older neighbors and family members to be sure they are safe. Pay them a visit or request a well-being check to make sure their homes are warm enough. The thermostat should be set to 66 degrees or higher.
Be mindful of what you eat and drink. Older people, especially, need to make sure they’re eating enough to maintain a healthy body weight so they have adequate “natural insulation” to help protect them from becoming too cold even while inside. Regardless of age, you should consume alcohol minimally, or not at all, if you’re going to be out in the cold. Drinking alcohol can make you feel warmer than you really are. I remember when the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1986, it wasn’t long before reports started coming in of people suffering frostbite. Several cases were the result of jubilant fans, sometimes dressed only in jeans and T-shirts, taking their celebrations outside after enjoying several rounds of adult beverages and not realizing just how fierce the elements were.
Monitor medication risks. If you have one or more health conditions that require medication, talk to your healthcare provider about how those medicines can affect you during cold weather, as some pharmaceuticals can impact your body’s ability to retain heat.
Hypothermia slows down the brain, leading to confusion and difficulty with movement, so those who are affected may have difficulty recognizing that they are in distress and getting the help they need. If you suspect that your loved one has hypothermia, seek medical attention and do your best to keep the person warm.
- If the person is wearing wet clothing, remove it.
- Wrap the person in anything you have handy that is warm and dry, such as blankets or towels. Handle the individual gently.
- Give him or her something warm to drink. Just make sure the beverage doesn’t contain caffeine or alcohol.
- Rub the person’s arms and legs or apply a heating pad or other hot compress directly to those sites. This will just direct cold back toward the heart.
- Place some one who may have hypothermia in a warm bath.
If your heat is not working or you can’t keep your home adequately warmed during cold snaps, it’s important to seek shelter right away rather than trying to ride out subfreezing temperatures on your own.
Anyone who has survived at least one Chicago winter probably already knows that the city provides warming centers to keep people safe when the mercury dips dangerously low. Go here to see a list of warming centers in Chicago and find the one closest to you. Residents are advised to call 311 first to check availability or to see if any additional temporary centers have been opened during especially bitter weather.
Cook County also provides places where people can go to escape hazardous cold. You can view a list of those sites here.
Stay safe and take a few minutes out of your day to check on anyone you may be concerned about! Even one cold-related death or health crisis is one too many.
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