Young and old are the most at risk to the dangers of cold, exposure

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010
— An elderly woman trying to save money on her energy bill turned down the heat in her house so much she slipped into hypothermia.

Her core body temperature dropped to 86 degrees, and her speech was slurred by the time she arrived at Mercy Hospital’s emergency department.

Dr. Glenn Milos, board certified emergency medicine physician at Mercy Regional Emergency Trauma Center in Janesville, said it took hours for the 82-year-old’s body temperature to return to the normal.

Mercy sees a couple dozen cases of hypothermia and frostbite cases each year, Milos said.

Although Janesville is likely to enjoy above-normal temperatures for the next several days, the dangers of exposure won’t diminish until spring.

Nationwide, hypothermia kills about 600 Americans every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Among them were two Wisconsin men who died in 2008 after spending hours in the bitter cold.

A 54-year-old Monticello man whose car got stuck while delivering newspapers died of hypothermia resulting in heart failure, according to the Green County coroner. He was found conscious outside his car after he started to walk to town.

In Sheboygan County, a 58-year-old man died of exposure in a farm field about a half-mile from his home. A deputy found him 600 feet from his vehicle, which was stuck in a ditch.

At the time of both of their deaths, temperatures were below zero with wind chills making it feel like 25 to 35 degrees below zero.

Who is at risk?

The dangers of exposure are greatest for the very young and very old, Milos said.

“Their defense mechanism and their abilities to compensate are compromised,’’ he said.

Children playing outside can suffer from hypothermia or frostbite.

“They’re not real good at monitoring their internal condition, and sometimes the activities outside get away from parents who get busy,’’ Milos said.

During brutally cold weather, children should be outdoors for no more than 20 minutes without warming up, he said.

“Then have them come inside and spend 10 minutes warming up,’’ he said.

Milos also recommends avoiding alcohol.

“Alcohol increases the blood flow to extremities—fingers, toes, arms and legs—and with that increases heat loss and risk of becoming hypothermic quicker. It’s sort of like drinking and driving. Drinking and going out in the cold don’t mix well,’’ he said.


Hypothermia becomes a risk when a person’s core body temperature drops to about 95 degrees. Early signs include goose bumps and feeling cold, Milos said.

But symptoms can progress to loss of coordination, slurred speech, pale and cold skin, inability to walk or stand and violent shivering.

“In the early stages, a person would be more likely to acknowledge getting cold but less aware when entering a severe state of hypothermia. Brain activity stops when there’s a core body temperature of 68 degrees,’’ Milos said.

Frostbite, which involves the freezing and destruction of tissue, usually occurs when the temperature is 30 degrees or lower. But with wind chill, frostbite can occur even in above-freezing temperatures, according to the American Red Cross.

Hypothermia treatment depends on severity. In mild to moderate cases, the person should be moved to a warm, dry place. Wet clothing should be removed and replaced with dry clothes and blankets before the person is given warm fluids, such as broth or tea.

In severe cases, Milos said, “call 911 or get to the hospital.”


To avoid hypothermia and frostbite during cold weather, the American Red Cross recommends:

-- Wearing wool instead of cotton. It retains its insulation even when wet.

-- Wearing a hat. When your head is exposed, 40 percent of body heat can be lost.

-- Keeping a change of dry clothing in case your clothes get wet.

-- Wearing loose clothing. It allows better ventilation.

-- Protecting exposed skin—face, ears and hands.

-- Drinking plenty of liquids but avoiding caffeine and alcohol.

-- If possible, working during the warmest part of the day.

-- Taking breaks out of the cold.

-- Working in pairs to watch for signs of cold stress.

-- Eating warm, high-calorie food such as pasta to maintain energy reserves.

-- Being aware that certain medications may prevent the body from generating heat normally. These include anti-depressants, sedatives and tranquilizers.

Last updated: 12:37 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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