11 Tennesseans Tragically Lost to Hypothermia Since Start of 2015
NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Health is urging Tennesseans to stay warm and protect themselves, friends and family members from deadly hypothermia as another round of severe cold weather impacts the state. A preliminary review of January and February 2015 fatalities indicates more than one-third of 30 cold weather-related deaths in Tennessee have been attributed to hypothermia, caused when the body’s core temperature drops to unsafe levels. Among the hypothermia deaths that have occurred, there appear to be no unexpected or previously unidentified individual risk factors. The long stretch of unusually cold weather caught many unprepared for the disaster.
“Hypothermia can happen to any of us, but people who are medically fragile, homeless, on certain medications and using alcohol are at greater risk than others and a caring person can help protect them,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Please think about friends, family and acquaintances that may be at greater risk, and make a plan to check on them. If you can’t do it yourself, call emergency services, local police or your local health department. If help is needed to assist someone else, emergency responders are here to make that happen. A phone call or conversation could mean the difference between life and death.”
Hypothermia can happen fast. Persons most at risk for hypothermia include those who:
- take certain medications, like those used for behavioral health, that affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature
- use alcohol, especially if intoxicated by alcohol and other drugs
- are elderly or have medical conditions that may impair generation of body heat
- live alone, are socially isolated or are homeless
- have mental/behavioral health issues
- are male (studies have shown males are more likely to be victims of hypothermia)
“A person can be developing hypothermia but not know it because confusion and amnesia are among the symptoms of the deadly condition,” said Paul Petersen, PharmD, TDH director of Emergency Preparedness. “Many mistakenly believe hypothermia only happens to people who spend long periods of time outdoors. In fact, it can happen to a person in a residence or structure that doesn’t have sufficient warmth, or in a vehicle lacking a working heating system.”
In addition to creating a system for checking on others, Tennesseans are urged to properly take care of themselves during extremely cold weather. Directions for avoiding hypothermia include:
- If you have a medical emergency, or are worried about a friend or neighbor, don’t hesitate to call 911
Dress in layers to retain body heat and limit time outdoors or in cold environments. Wearing a hat or head covering is most important.
- Come inside frequently to warm up. If your home or business heating system fails don’t attempt to “tough it out”; seek an alternative place to stay. Never use a power generator indoors; they can generate deadly carbon monoxide gas. Also do not use outdoor gas or charcoal cooking devices indoors.
- Don’t drink alcohol. It provides a temporary sensation of warmth but long-term it causes your body to lose heat and can lead to hypothermia. Alcohol can also dull the senses, prohibiting clear-thinking when it is needed most.
- If you must travel by vehicle, make sure you have life-saving necessities: a functioning cell phone with a car charger; blankets; candles to generate heat and matches; a flashlight; food and water. Before getting on the road, let someone know your travel route and have him or her check on you to make sure you arrived safely.
- Medical conditions or drugs you take may affect your body’s ability to regulate heat. Some antidepressants, antipsychotics, narcotic pain medications and sedatives can change the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
- Some health disorders can also affect your body’s ability to regulate its temperature, including underactive thyroid, poor nutrition, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, trauma, spinal injuries, dehydration, circulatory issues and other conditions.
- Make sure you have someone that checks on you. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for an exchange of, “I’m okay” calls.
- To find an emergency shelter in your area, call 2-1-1, your county emergency management agency or the non-emergency telephone number of your local police department. You may also visit http://health.state.tn.us/ceds/TNDisSup/index.htm.
“Take care of yourself first so you can then help take care of others,” Dreyzehner said. “When you do a cold weather wellness check by phone or in person, invest a little time to truly make sure the person is okay and follow up with him or her later to make sure that person is still alright. If you suspect a person needs assistance, trust your instincts and seek help. You could save a life.”
Learn more about hypothermia at http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/staysafe/hypothermia.asp.