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February 1, 2011

02/02/11 When the winter temperatures drop, staying warm and dry can be a challenge.  And with severe weather expected in the days ahead, state health officials recommend Hoosiers protect themselves by preparing for the cold. 

Extremely cold temperatures, ice, and snow can pose hazards both indoors and out.  Outdoors, serious health problems can result from prolonged exposure to cold, namely frostbite and hypothermia.  Indoors, improper use of portable heating equipment can lead to fire or dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.  Food safety issues can also arise should the electricity go out resulting in the loss of refrigeration. 

Tips for staying warm and safe while at home include:

  • Use fireplace, wood stoves, or other combustion heaters only if they are properly vented to the outside.  Exercise caution when heating with these devices, as well as propane appliances, and older wall or floor gas furnaces.
  • Never use a charcoal or gas grill indoors—the fumes are deadly.
  • Check that you have a working carbon monoxide detector.
  • Never leave lit candles unattended.
  • Keep as much heat as possible inside your home. Check the temperature in your home often during severely cold weather.
  • Leave all water taps slightly open so they drip continuously.
  • If the power goes out, note the time of the outage and have a plan to keep perishable food cold. Potentially hazardous foods, including meat, dairy, eggs, and cooked vegetables need to be stored at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit.   

“It’s critical to have a plan in place for if you are without power and heat for an extended period of time,” said State Health Commissioner Gregory Larkin, M.D. “Exposure to cold can cause life-threatening health conditions, such as frostbite or hypothermia.” 

Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing; frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas, often the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes.  Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation.  

Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, is a short-term, but serious condition that can occur when a person is exposed to cold temperatures for an extended period of time.  When a person’s body temperature gets too low, it can affect the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well.

Hypothermia is particularly dangerous because a person may not know what is happening and won’t be able to do anything about it. 

“Stay indoors whenever possible during a winter storm,” said Dr. Larkin.  “If you must go outside, be sure to dress in layers, cover your head, face and mouth, and wear water-resistant coats and boots.  Never ignore shivering—it’s an important first sign that the body is losing heat. Persistent shivering is a signal to return indoors.”