Question of the Week

January 29, 2008


It's the middle of winter. For many, that means cold. Sadly, this has led to some tragic stories.

January 21, 2008:
"Mary Labounty was found Sunday near her back door, said John Sullivan, chief deputy coroner for LaPorte County. Labounty's body was discovered by a friend who often took her on errands, he said. It appeared she had been dead for less than 24 hours, he said. Labounty apparently locked herself out of her house and when she tried the latch on the back door, it snapped, probably from the cold, and cut her hand, Sullivan said. She then lay down next to her golden retriever, likely in an effort to keep warm..."

Mary Labounty's nearest neighbor lived a mile away. She was 84-years-old.

Just one day earlier, another death made headlines.

"The freezing weather sliding through Wisconsin can be deadly, and it may have already claimed the life of one woman from Cudahy. Kristine Colla, who was 54, was found dead on her front steps on Saturday. The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's office says she was frozen to death, but since her body was frozen, they'll have to wait a day or two to perform an autopsy. Colla was found with no shoes on and a lighter by her side."

That same week:

"The practice of turning off the heat to save on utility bills apparently cost a Chicago area woman her life. The frozen body of Stella Chambers, 61, of Michigan City was discovered about 5 p.m. Monday under the covers in her bed, according to LaPorte County Deputy Coroner Mark Huffman. Police said Chambers had a hat and several layers of clothing on. ... Some of the windows inside the residence were iced over and the water in the toilet was frozen solid, police said. Investigators discovered the pilot light on her furnace was burning. However, the thermostat was turned off. ... Huffman ruled hypothermia as the cause of death from exposure to the bitter cold inside the ranch-style residence.",6_1_NA24_STATE2_S1.article

For those who don't live in parts of the country where high temperatures can sit below freezing for weeks on end, these stories may seem like they come from a far-off world where cold rules and people really aught to be prepared for such possibilities.

"Although hypothermia-related deaths are prevalent during the winter in states that have moderately cold (e.g., Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania) to severely cold (e.g., Alaska and North Dakota) winters and in states with mountainous or desert terrain (e.g., Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico), hypothermia-related deaths also occur in states with milder climates (e.g., Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina), where weather systems can cause rapid changes in temperature."

While not everyone who lives in (or visits) a moderately to severely cold climate is always prepared, those in milder climates are often surprised that hypothermia can be an issue where they are.

"[T]emperatures need not be at freezing, or even very low, for hypothermia to occur. Most cases occur in air temperatures of 30 to 50 degrees. But people can succumb to overexposure even at 60 or 70 degrees. ... People are warm-blooded animals that must generate their own body heat and, unless something goes wrong, maintain a core temperature of about 98 degrees. But when the body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced, the risk of hypothermia sets in. Even a drop in core temperature of two or three degrees can have devastating consequences."

While lower temperatures are a factor that can lead to hypothermia, it is important to remember that it is just one factor.

"Three factors are major causal factors in hypothermia: cold, water, and wind. 1) In a cold environment, the body must work harder to regulate heat; contact with cold air, water, snow, ground or clothing will cause heat losses due to conduction. 2) If a person is submersed in water, heat will be lost due to conduction and convection. ... Loss of heat by evaporation is a major contributor also. Wet skin or clothing will cool of the body quickly, especially if it is windy and/or cold. 3) Wind will cause heat loss due to convection, and will accelerate heat loss due to evaporation. 4) Hypothermia occurs much more quickly in the elderly and chronically ill."

As temperatures drop, wind speeds pick up, or a cold rain is added to the equation, it is important for people in all parts of the country to be prepared.

"Before you or your children step out into cold air, remember the advice that follows with the simple acronym COLD:
C for cover: Wear a hat or other protective covering to prevent body heat from escaping from your head, face and neck. Cover your hands with mittens instead of gloves. Mittens are more effective than gloves because mittens keep your fingers in closer contact with one another.
O for overexertion: Avoid activities that would cause you to sweat a lot. The combination of wet clothing and cold weather can give you chills.
L for layers: Wear loose fitting, layered, lightweight clothing. Outer clothing made of tightly woven, water-repellent material is best for wind protection. Wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers hold more body heat than cotton does.
D for dry: Stay as dry as possible. In the winter, pay special attention to places where snow can enter, such as in loose mittens or snow boots.",a,1370,q,602598,dohNav_GID,1787,dohNav,%7C33139%7C.asp

Preparing for the cold by dressing appropriately for the weather is something many people take the time to do every day. Many of those same people, however, have not taken a few minutes on any one given day to put together an emergency supply kit for their car.

"During cold-weather months, keep emergency supplies in your car in case you get stranded. Supplies may include several blankets, matches, candles and some foodstuffs, such as granola bars or crackers. A cell phone also can come in handy. If your car is stuck in a snowbank, be careful about leaving the engine running, because infiltration of carbon monoxide inside the car may pose a silent danger."

Having necessary supplies in the car will make being stranded more tolerable. It can also make it so that people are less anxious to leave their car to find help or supplies when it is not safe to do so.

"The first rule of survival when you become stuck and stranded in your car is to STAY WITH THE CAR! The only time you should dare to venture away from the vehicle is after the storm has gone down and you can easily see an occupied house. ... Soft snow is one of the most difficult materials to walk in. A snow depth of more than 4 inches will cause a person to walk in an unnatural, bent-over position. This position, along with the effort of lifting the feet much more than usual to clear the snow, will fatigue a person very quickly. The cold and wind also accelerate the loss of energy. Very quickly, the body cannot expend enough energy to maintain strength and internal body heat. Hypothermia develops quickly. The distance you can cover on a good day is impossible while attempting to walk in a storm. It is always better to stay in the vehicle where you are protected from the wind and cold. It requires much less energy consumption to stay with the car and minimize activity. Many more storm survivors are found alive and well in their car than are found walking around in the snow, wind and cold. Those who leave their vehicle are usually found frozen in a snowbank or draped over a fence, dead. Stay in the car and survive!"

Questions of the Week:
What do you think are common misconceptions about hypothermia? What do you and your peers need to know about hypothermia where you live? In what ways would this information be different (and in what ways the same) if you were traveling to a different part of the country? How can you prepare yourself on a daily (and on a seasonal) basis to protect yourself against hypothermia?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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