A study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)* found about 2,100 people in America die each year due to weather-related issues. Of that number, about 1,300 die because of the cold; about twice as many as die from heat each year.
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The cause of death: exposure to excessive, natural cold, hypothermia or both. The chance of dying from the cold begins to increase dramatically at the age of 65, and men died from cold-related causes about twice as often as women.
Hypothermia (abnormally low body temperature) occurs most commonly at very cold environmental temperatures, but can
occur even at cool temperatures (above 40 degrees Fahrenheit) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or cold water.
Victims of hypothermia are most often elderly people with inadequate food, clothing or heating, babies sleeping in cold bedrooms, children left unattended, adults under the influence of alcohol, mentally ill individuals or people who remain outdoors for long periods, including the homeless, hikers or hunters.
The warning signs of hypothermia in adults include shivering/exhaustion, confusion/fumbling hands, memory loss/slurred speech and drowsiness.
If you notice signs of hypothermia, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the situation is an emergency—get medical attention immediately. If immediate medical care is not available, begin warming the person as follows:
- Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
- If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it.
- Warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head, and groin—using an electric blanket, if available. Or you can use skin-to-skin contact to warm them under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels or sheets.
- Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
- After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
- Get medical attention as soon as possible.
Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes, and some severe cases may require surgical amputation.
At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin—frostbite may be beginning. Frostbite might be indicated by a white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy or numbness.
A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because the affected tissues are frozen and numb.
Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure, first determine whether the victim also shows signs of hypothermia, as described previously. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance.
If there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes—this increases the damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
- Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp or the heat of a stove, fireplace or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.